For the Man after Me
Fiction by Eric Shonkwiler
The chains on the Ranger quiet and go silent altogether when he pulls up behind the wreck. There is a long, curling drag of snow ahead like the beginning of a figure-eight or from far above, maybe the top of a cursive letter, e or a, except it ends with the blue Explorer smashed driver-side into the telephone pole. Just take the rims, he thinks, if they aren’t factory. A TapOut necklace is swinging gently from the rearview, and he stills it. He could just go on. He could call 911 and leave. If there’s someone inside, don’t mess with it. Leave it for the cops.
It’s a new snow, and the clouds have already passed after dropping a couple inches, and the sky is bright blue. The cold cuts through his Carhartt to his back, and he can feel it spasming, and he wants to lie down, feels the lack of sleep in his shoulders from staying up with Brendan after his nightmare. The back windows on the Explorer are tinted, and he can’t see inside. He steps off the road and into the packed snow, over the dirt and grass kicked up from the skid, and peers in the passenger window. The impact cracked the windshield, and the airbag is drooping toward an empty seat. He breathes. He looks down at his feet for footprints and sees some intricate sneaker tracks leading up to the road. He pulls his cell from his coat pocket and dials up the shop.
MD answers. New meat. What you got for me?
’96 Explorer. It’s in bad shape.
Gonna need a rollback?
He walks around the other side of the truck. It’s curved like a fish, and the driveshaft has to be crooked. Yeah, he says, and nods like MD will see.
You just find it?
Yeah. There’s no one around. He puts his hand on the hood. Engine’s still a bit warm.
Where you at?
He tells him.
We’ll be out. Sit tight.
They hang up. There’s no one coming either direction, and he can just barely hear the semis on 29. From this far off, they don’t sound like trucks, and all he really hears is the hum of them passing, like whales, he imagines, the sound of displacement. He briefly remembers a book he’d read in elementary school, the word ‘cetacea’ above pictures of whales, row on row, all shapes and sizes, before walking around to the front of the wreck. There’s less wind from this side, and he puts his hands on his hips and arches his back, feels it strain, crack. He kneads the muscle beside the spine with his knuckles. He walks a few feet into the field to see if the telephone pole is cracked, but it’s fine, not even crooked from what he can see. He wonders how the poles are strung a hundred feet apart, yet people always seem to hit them, never pass on through into the field or to someone’s yard, something harmless. The glass is busted out from the driver-side window, and the bits look like blue-green gems sprinkled in the snow. The rest of the truck seems intact. At the back, gauging the trueness of the vehicle with one eye, like judging a pool cue, it doesn’t seem as bad as he first thought.
He looks up and sighs, scans the horizon. Cornfields for a couple hundred acres, and then to the south, thick woods. If it were tomorrow, it would be deer season, and he’d hear nothing but gunshots. Maybe still the hums of 29. It’s a good day for picking, he’s told, if you’re careful. Find a truck at the edge of a field and take the rims, take the battery if there’s time. He jumps the short ditch and starts back to his Ranger but stops. There is a tiny flag of red floating against the trees. He squints, visors his hand over his eyes. It’s red, not orange, so not some eager hunter. The footprints below him go from the passenger door to the road, stop where the snow is mostly gone in the center, and continue into the field. He yells for the person, a long hey, hands cupped. The red doesn’t get any closer or further, only seems to sway a little.
He looks both ways down the road, still abandoned, and starts to highfoot it across the cornfield, the broken stover catching and tripping him up every few steps. Now, he can see it’s a woman, wearing one of those sweater-vests. He can make out the white of her turtleneck and her jeans. He yells again, starting to breathe heavily, and waves. She’s just standing there, walking a tight circle. She’s not even looking up. He doesn’t see any blood, and wonders how she could have gotten away without a scratch. Then she pivots for the rest of her circle, and, right before he can grab her by the shoulders, he sees her eyes. The left is blown, all the wiry capillaries burst, and her iris is thin blue but wildly bright against the blood.
Ma’am, he says, are you all right?
He’s stopped her now and is holding tight to her shoulders. She doesn’t say anything. He looks her up and down and still sees nothing wrong with her, just the eye. He remembers his phone and looks back at the vehicles a hundred yards away. He pulls his phone out and calls MD.
Cancel it, man, he says. The driver’s out here, and I need to call her an ambulance.
The woman grabs his arm. I’m looking for my dog.
He stares at her. For a moment, she’s in profile, and he notices she’s pretty, delicate nose, long eyelashes, a classy everymom sort of haircut. Lady, your dog ain’t here. He turns back to the phone. You got a pre-pay to call on or anything?
Yeah, MD says. Where were you again?
Lewis Road, probably a mile or two back from 29.
She know who you are?
I don’t think she knows who she is, he says.
We could keep rollin’.
He stops, looks at the ground. You won’t beat the medic out, will you?
No. She make it if we wait?
He glances back at her. I got no idea, man. Her eye’s all fucked up, and she’s talking about a dog. I think she’s in shock or something.
Well. MD sighs. We could use a ’96.
He curses softly, turns in his tracks. The woman has started her circle again. All right, I’ll deal with it. She’s moving around okay.
Your boy called a bit ago.
He smiles briefly. I just taught him the number.
He’s smart, huh?
Yeah, he ain’t nothin’ like me. Look, I better go.
He pockets the phone. Come on, ma’am. Get you out of the cold.
He takes the woman’s arm, and he has to pull to get her to move. She’s still warm somehow. They don’t get far before she tumbles in the rough dirt and snow, and they both go down. As he lifts up, he hears a car coming and lowers back to his chest, his hands covered in snow and his chin almost touching it. A Sunfire heading toward 29. It slows, stops. He should have put his hazards on. He should have taken off the back plate. He should have made the drive to the shop and asked for one of their cars. The Sunfire goes on after a few seconds.
Jesus. He feels the sweat on his forehead freeze. He gets up and brushes his hands on the front of his coat. The woman is facedown and unmoving. Lady. Hey. She doesn’t respond. Hey. He grips her shoulder, rolls her over. Are you okay? You hurt? There’s no answer again, so he throws her arm over his shoulder and stands with her, and once her feet are under her, she begins to move. He hears air like she’s trying to whistle or maybe whisper, and he stops and says, What?
But she keeps on. Her lips are pursed oddly, and he realizes she is just breathing, and he feels something weighing him down inside. When they reach the road, he puts a little distance between them, and she drops onto the pavement and snow.
He moves his arms in a wave, unsure, and looks down the road even as he angles toward her. She is crumpled up on herself like her legs became unboned. He turns her head to look at him, the red eye strong and piercing, and he almost has to cover it to keep looking at her. The skin of her face has gone pale, cool as the snow. He presses at her neck, tries to find a pulse. He checks her wrist in a panic. He can’t tell. To the east, the road is still clear, and he brushes away at the snow stuck to her vest and creeping into the folds of her turtleneck. The Sunfire didn’t get his plate; he’s sure. Not hers, either. Just checking out a crash. He can leave now. He can call 911 and have them come get her and be gone, headed home. Take the O2 sensors and battery and the rims and be gone and have something to give MD. But there are his tracks, truck, and footprints, and if someone gets curious, he could get ID’d. He pulls her half up, thinking maybe she’ll start moving again once she’s standing, but feels her still slack and heavy on his shoulder, and he bends to sweep her legs up and staggers with her toward his Ranger. Something buzzes against his chest, and he figures it’s her phone. Drive her in, then. Meet the ambulance. Keep it away from the scene so the guys can scoop up the wreck. Nothing to be done. He’s a Samaritan, not a thief. Can even be anonymous.
He has to set her down to open the door, pressing his knees to the quarter panel and trapping her partly against it with his arm, keeping her from the ground, then lifting her up and nearly losing his balance putting her in the seat. His cheek presses against her breast, and he catches perfume and feels embarrassed more than anything before looking at her face, head lax, leaning toward him. He is only now really afraid and only now because she is dead, and he doesn’t know what that means. He pushes her toward the center of the bench seat and closes the door quickly so it doesn’t end up slamming her head if she slouches back.
With his hands free and walking around the front of the Ranger, he starts to shake. The Explorer is motionless — as though it should be moving. Caught like a still of a movie, and there should be glass flying through the air if he looked hard enough. The road is empty as far as he can see, and he opens his door and gets in, turns the key. The truck starts up and the radio blares metal, and he is embarrassed again. As he pulls the wheel hard to the left, he has the feeling that he’s fleeing a crime scene.
He puts it up to fifty comfortably before thinking he hasn’t buckled her in, and he hits the brakes. She lurches, head striking the dash. He winces and rights her, clips her seatbelt.
I’m sorry, he says, and brushes her hair back to straighten it, like someone will notice or care.
Going on toward 29, he looks over at her every couple hundred feet to see if maybe she’s come back around, but she hasn’t. He stops at the intersection, scans her, grabs her wrist to see if it’s warm again. Her eyes are open and looking blankly at the floor or her lap. The left eye looks peeled. He wants to push her head back against the seat because it seems more comfortable that way. There’s a buzz, and he remembers her phone. It vibrates musically, two short buzzes and a long one, then again, again. He lets it go and turns left.
The firehouse is in the center of town, just past the stoplight, he remembers. It’s been a while since he’s been here, the last time he came to an away football game. The phone buzzes again after they enter the village limits, and he leans over, eyes still on the road, and searches through her vest pocket for it. He pulls it out and looks at it. The picture on the screen: a man probably ten or fifteen years older than he is, and a child, baby hair almost white and sparse, gummy grin. He sets the phone down between them and puts both hands on the wheel. Brendan is only a little older. A year, maybe. He glances at the woman, and his heart pulls so many ways he can’t name one of them. She is pretty, but that’s all she has in common with her. He swallows something, thinks of the park a couple years ago. They pass a gas station and a library on the left, an older woman salting the walkway. The light is up ahead, and it turns red and he stops. A couple cars pull up on the other side, and he wonders if they can see into the truck, see her slouched there. The light is still red, and no one is coming. He lets off the brake and drives through the light, and the silver flank of a semi fills his rearview. The firehouse is right there, and his arms and legs feel heavy getting out and running to the door. The reception area is vacant, two chairs, a gumball machine. There’s a glass booth set into the wall with no one in it, and he realizes he should have called on the way. A payphone sits off to one side, and he fishes for a quarter and dials 911. Dispatch picks up on the second ring. He paces as close to the door as he can get, looks out at his truck and at the woman inside.
I just freaked out, he says. I saw her and didn’t know what to do. He is flushed suddenly and, after hanging up, walks outside. It is as though he has killed her, as though he wrecked her car. He feels like he has left something important behind.
He gives the medics a fake name, and they are satisfied. They pull her out of the truck and straight onto the gurney, load her into the back of the ambulance, and leave him there on the street with their lights going and the siren, and he watches the red flash over the sides of the houses as they drive away. He wanted to ask about her, to follow them to the hospital, but instead he gets into the truck and pulls a U-ey to head back the way he came.
It’s 3:56 by the clock, and the sun is heading down. In another hour, the snow will be blue and the stars will come out and Brendan will be at the door, breathing steam on the glass, drawing in it. He passes through the intersection and drives out of town, meets the start of traffic coming home and the end of it leaving for work. People going out for second shift at the Honda plant, a grind he could never take even if they’d hire him. Her phone lights up and bleats. He picks it up, puts it back. Turning down Lewis Road to make sure the Explorer is gone, he thinks he’ll just chuck the phone out the window. But there’s the truck, still. No rollback in sight. He parks the Ranger and gets out, switches her phone for his, and calls MD.
MD picks up on the first ring. Bryce, man, you’re not gonna believe this shit.
What, he says.
Tranny dropped on that F600. Pull the usual offa the wreck. We’re gonna have to let it go.
He nearly sits down in the road. All right.
Traffic on your woman is bad. They called her soon as they got her.
He nods. I figured.
Foulk’s Towing on its way. You probably got half an hour. Sheriffs are tied up across the county.
He’s silent for a minute, stuck between the two trucks. He turns back to his.
Well, see you back here.
Yeah. He hangs up. He puts his phone away thinking of the doublewide, dark and dry from the plug-in heaters, his son’s chapped nostrils, him tugging on the cord of the phone while Grandma stands beside him, waiting, too. As he gets his tools from the bed of the truck, he thinks of the baby on the woman’s phone, and the man, the husband. He wants to call MD to see if there was traffic about contacting family, but they probably asked off-air.
He takes a tarp and his toolbox from the back, throws the tarp down below the Explorer, and slings himself under the truck, eases to the back of the engine block. He looks along the exhaust and raises the screwdriver up to the first O2 sensor to peel back the plastic and stops. What was above him, what was warm and like a home, maybe, this truck. He thinks of sitting in the backseat, looking at the mom and dad, holding hands between the seats, or her hand on his thigh. All the things he didn’t get to do, won’t, the things Brendan will never see. And if he does, they won’t be right. They won’t be like this kid saw. It won’t be his mother.
The first sensor comes off easy, and so do the rest. Scooting himself out from under the wreck, he feels the cold seep in from the ground below. He stands and opens the passenger door to lean over and flip the lock on the hood and something pale catches his eye in the backseat. He looks ahead, through the cracked windshield, and moves to shut the door. His feet slip out, and he sits down against the tire. A semi or two passes along the highway.
The field across the way looks barren. Like nothing could grow there, like the rows of stover are all there ever was, jagged above the snow. Again he thinks, I could go. Try again tomorrow. This is only his third week. But he’s already seen this, and he thinks the driver heading this way doesn’t need to. So he calls 911 from his phone. He says he just came up on a wreck and the dispatcher tries to tell him it’s taken care of, and he says, No. No, it’s not. He says, There’s a kid here in the back, and the woman on the other end goes quiet. She finally asks his name, and he gives it. Then she asks him to wait there for the deputy or the ambulance, and he says, Yeah, I’ll wait. She wants to keep him on the line, but he says, I’ll wait, again and hangs up.
He stands and walks into the field, following the tracks, and he takes out the woman’s phone. There are five missed calls and a couple text messages, and he clears the notices to see the picture again, but the background is of flowers. He bends down to set the phone in the snow, and walks back to his truck, hands deep in his pockets for the cold and the shivering.
The 2016 Luminaire Award for Best Prose
FIRST PLACE WINNER
We are pleased to announce the first place winner for the 2016 Luminaire Award for Best Prose, honoring the independent press’ best short stories and hybrid prose works of the year. The winner is selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blind and chooses the full list of finalists. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final. The first place winner receives a printed certificate, an honorarium, publication on Alternating Current’s award page, publication on The Coil, printed publication in our triennial awards anthology, two complimentary copies of the journal, and our virtual medallion created by the lovely folks at Hardly Square, for personal and professional use on the author’s websites, blogs, and book covers.
ERIC SHONKWILER is the author of the novels Above All Men and 8th Street Power & Light (MG Press) and the story collection Moon Up, Past Full (Alternating Current). He has had writing appear in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, The Lit Pub, and elsewhere. He was born and raised in Ohio, received his MFA from University of California-Riverside, and has lived and worked in every contiguous U.S. time zone.
Originally published on 1/18/16.