I joined a carpool once. It wasn’t long ago that I joined, but it was long enough that I can finally put what happened aside for a few hours and try to have a normal day.There were four of us in this carpool, four mid-level managers who worked at the same real estate development company, and every one of us had tough commutes to work. There was me and there was Ken, Pete and Ryan. Before I joined the carpool my commute was well over an hour each way. My Sunrise was spent alone, an aggravating and mindless stop-and-go fueled by AM radio and caffeine. And my Sunset, my sunset was a blinking red light-show of aggravation the entire way home. Constant traffic. I remember I used to turn off my phone, turn off the radio, and drive in silence. I don’t do that anymore, but when I did, I remember liking the quiet. Driving that commute every day gave me time. Time to think about the things you’re doing, the things you’re going to do, and the things you’ve done. I especially used to think about the things I’ve done. How I once had power over them, but now I don’t. They are permanently gouged in time, they leave marks. You better make peace with that. Because everything we do, we do not do alone. It is shared. Shared with others. With a God? With Fate? I don’t know. But I know now what I never thought about before: That what we do, everything we do, is witnessed.
It was Ken Hallwell who first had the carpool idea and persuaded me to sign up. He spouted calculations about gas mileage, time saved, who would drive when, and all the other little details that went with starting a carpool group. Ken did not talk much, but when he talked about this carpool idea, he did. Maybe he wasn’t like me. Maybe he didn’t want to drive alone. We each took our turns driving, picking up the other three, weaving our way to work, sipping coffee and talking sports, politics, office drama, project deadlines, and the varied minutiae that makes up the forty hour work week. It worked well, the way managers like things to work well. Especially Ken. He kept us on time. Doing the right things. He was one of those guys. Every group needs one. A likable guy. Organized. I always meant to invite Ken Halwell over to my house, to meet my family. He was my age and I knew he lived alone, no kids, never married. He had this scar that ran down the left side of his scalp to the top of his ear. You could see it because hair wouldn’t, or couldn’t grow there. Something must have really gouged him. I always meant to get to know more about Ken. But I never did.
It was a Thursday. I remember because it was Halloween. And because the next morning was a Friday and it would have been my turn to drive. And Fridays mornings are easy. Well, easier. But that night was Thursday, the drive from work to home. Pete spent most of the commute talking from the back seat about how Legal had grilled him on the land deal. Pete claimed to hate being grilled by legal, but I think he liked it, because he loved telling lawyers how little they knew about land deals. Pete was dropped off first, his kids meeting him at the curb, tugging at him to hurry up so they could Trick or Treat. Next was Ryan. Ken usually had to wake him up. Ryan was a napper. I’ve always been jealous of nappers. People who can just fall asleep anywhere. Kids fighting, game on, wife yapping on the phone, and nappers like Ryan pay no mind, dozing away through it all. It’s never been me. I’ve always been a light sleeper, noticing any sound, any noise in the night. Noises which were always nothing, but left me laying in bed waiting for the next noise until sleep finally returned. I have never slept great, and now I probably never will.
Ryan stepped out of the car and Ken eased us back into the drive and onto the freeway for the seven miles to my place, and then another four to his. By this time the sun had set, lost from view for over an hour. We sat quietly for a few minutes and I stared up at the late evening sky. From a freeway, a packed freeway, the evening sky always has this color that changes and I remember hating it. I used to watch it when I drove alone. It is a darkening grey, like a giant cloud of ash falling over the day. That night it crept past the sun, trying to take the sky into darkness. Maybe it was impatient for Halloween, that one night when the line between the living and the dead blurs and breaks. I remember feeling glad to be riding in that car, among those thousands of headlights and thousands of brake-lights, thinking, what could happen here?
Traffic was stopped. Five rows of cars, trucks, and buses stretched ahead to the horizon, brake-lights arcing on and off as we all inched forward. I was beginning to tell Ken about the costume my son and I made, then ruined, then finally purchased, when we suddenly lurched forward hard. Ken had hit the brakes to avoid a station wagon moving into our lane. A station wagon. I remember thinking you don’t see many of those anymore. Hardly any at all. It came from our left and either didn’t see us or didn’t care. I had never heard Ken swear, but I expected him to. If it was me, I would have. I probably would have even honked at that station wagon. But for some reason, Ken just stared at it. The station wagon was pale white with that fake wood paneling on the sides and back. It had one of those large rear windows that faced us, the kind the driver could roll up or roll down to let anything in or out. The license plate was black. One of those black California plates I thought they had discontinued a long time ago, like station wagons. Traffic started moving again, slowly. But the station wagon didn’t move. It just sat there, brake lights shining red. When it did move it seemed to roll, not roll really, but glide. It glided forward and we followed it.
“Jerk”, I said. After a breath, Ken sighed, “Yeah….Jerk.” I remember thinking that Ken was getting quiet. Ken had always been a quiet guy, but not really quiet. I mean he was always looking at you, nodding, letting out a laugh or a short reply. Always following a conversation. Listening. But he wasn’t doing that now, he was staring at that car in front of us like he knew something. Like he knew the car. Or the driver. Something.
“Ken, you know this guy?” I asked. He answered me, but I remember his voice cracking as he did. “I — I think I do”. He stared straight ahead, focusing. Traffic was still slow, but it was starting to pick up now and then. Whenever it did, the distance between that car and us would grow, leaving space for a car to merge in, but whenever that happened Ken would rev up the minivan and close the distance like he didn’t want any other car to get between our car and that station wagon. We never seemed to be more than a few feet from the back of it, with Ken continuing to stare at it. Our lane stopped. The station wagon stopped and we stopped. Then, in front of us, that long rear window started to roll down, inch down, like a glass curtain. I seem to remember wishing it wouldn’t, but it was. It was rolling down and it stopped and we could see inside. Nothing. There was nothing inside. Not nothing as in it was empty, but nothing as in it was a deep black. Devoid of light. You couldn’t see in the car, you couldn’t see through the car, to the front window or to the driver or to the traffic beyond. There was just nothing. HONK. Traffic had started to move a little. Cars on both lanes on either side were passing us, and a couple of the cars behind us started to honk, their drivers aggravated. But we didn’t move. Ken didn’t move. I pulled my eyes away from the window to him. He was craning forward, glaring into that car, into that open window. “Ken?” I said. He gasped like he had forgotten to breathe, and then slowly turned his head to me. There were tears welling up in his eyes and he was shaking like he was cold and like he couldn’t stop shaking if he tried. His head turned to me, but his eyes stayed tuned on that car when he broke a whisper, stuttering as he asked me, “Can you — Can you see them?” I followed his gaze back to that open window and saw nothing but that curtain of black in the middle of that station wagon, in the middle of our lane, in the middle of this freeway. A freeway which was starting to open up, to move. Cars passed us, honking, picking up speed. “See what?” I asked, staring deep into that window in case I was missing something. I looked into it. I remember having a feeling I was not sitting, not sitting in Ken’s minivan, but that I was standing at the edge of a hole staring into its emptiness — or rather a hole that seemed empty, but I knew, I KNEW something was in it, something that I put down there. “They found me”, Ken sighed.
HONNKKKK. I jumped at the sound of the cars behind us, around us. They were really moving now, speeding by on each side. Then Ken opened his door. “Ken!” He seemed to not even know I was there. “Ken! Close the door!” He stepped out and a moving van careened past him, less than a foot away, wind gusting into our car, horn blaring. “Ken!!” He leaned further out and that’s when I reached for him, I reached for him and I grabbed his wrist and we locked eyes. As soon as we touched, in that very instant, I felt pain. Pain within me, inside me. Pain that was all mine, that had been there my entire life. My body ached from the outline of my skin to the organs inside me. I gasped and felt I would cry because I could now see into the back window of that car and I could see what Ken could see. Two small faces of two children were suddenly there, looking at me, each of them glaring at me. Two eyeless pale-white children whose tiny lipless mouths gaped open, forming holes of skin that cried forever. Behind them were two shadowy forms, one male, one female. The forms were reaching for the children with elongated limbs that contorted and stretched in ungodly ways, making sickening snapping sounds as they moved and reached. They seemed to be reaching for these child-things, but could not touch them no matter how much they strained. I screamed and felt Ken wrench away from me. He stepped outside the car into the rushing traffic and walked towards that station wagon. But I don’t think he walked, I think he was pulled. I called for him again, screaming into the rush and wind of the freeway and the cars when one clipped his drivers-side door and snapped it off in a loud cracking metal sound, brakes screaming as it veered away onto the shoulder. I saw Ken stop at the drivers side window of the station wagon. He leaned forward and looked inside and seemed to recognize whatever he saw in that car because his eyes glazed with tears and he slowly stood straight up and in that instant Ken Hallwell was struck by a passing charter bus, struck in a thunder of glass, teeth, blood and metal that sprayed into the night air. I watched Ken’s body fly and thud into the road yards away. For just a second, it seemed his blank eyes met mine — -Then a sedan, avoiding the bus, braked hard and rear-ended the minivan I was in. I remember hearing adults screaming and children crying and seeing the world go dark.
Sixteen days later I was in a hospital and I was told two things: There was no station wagon that night. It was only a stalled car with a scared teenager inside. And the other thing was that Ken Hallwell was actually Keith Havers.
Ken/Keith was a suspect in a hit and run crash twenty three years ago and five states away. The crash killed a husband, his wife and their twin girls. The impact sent their vehicle off the road into a small creek, flipping it twice and crushing the two adults in their seats. An ignition cable had ignited a pool of gasoline and the car — a pale white station wagon with wood paneling — began to burn in the creek bed, with the family inside. Deputies found one set of adult footprints near the crash site. They led away from that station wagon and from that family and from a second vehicle, a severely damaged pickup truck that was found on the road, idling, abandoned and alone.
Now you know the two things I was told. But you should also know the two things I learned:
We do not do anything alone. What we do leaves a mark.