Vic drove for miles and miles on old back roads that cut through rolling fields of wheat and hay and parched dry lands of lifeless brush, until at last he saw the darkened silhouettes of mountains on the far horizon. He was nearly halfway home.
Even though he’d only been behind the wheel for three hours, he felt weary and exhausted. He woke up in the morning with a lingering feeling of dread, which he associated at the time with all the lousy things that were happening in his life, or with something that was about to happen. He couldn’t shake that feeling off during any part of the drive. On one particularly desolate stretch of road, he found himself drifting into an oncoming lane and then realized that the faint rattling of the buckle on the back seat safety belt had lulled him into a reverie. He turned on the radio to snap himself out of it.
The day before, he had spent much of the time arguing with Annie, his ex, about alimony payments and later trying to make amends with his high school son, Jake, who was becoming a stranger to him. They moved away from Seattle the year before after she got a job for a rural Whitman County school district on the other side of the state. He really wanted to talk more with Jake but was unable to do so because of the stressful situation with Annie, so he told himself that he would do it next time. He knew that was a cop-out because he tried to do the same thing with Jake during the previous visit, but was too depressed to make the effort.
He rolled into Ellensburg about an hour later. It was time to fuel up the car and get a bite to eat. The drive across the state from the Palouse was as dull and monotonous as usual on this late November day. He stared toward the Cascade Mountains in the west as he filled up the tank. A thin blanket of snow covered the crests of the craggy peaks and ridges. The faint orb of the sun hung low in the southern sky behind a layer of high gray clouds. A chilly gust of wind coming from the mountains felt like an icy shroud as it wrapped around his body.
“Recommend any good steak places around here?” he asked the clerk at the station.
She was a middle-aged woman with Native American features: high cheekbones, deeply etched, weathered skin and long gray hair. She sized him up with a knowing smile before answering. “You should go to the old café across the street if you want a good steak. There it is,” she said, pointing in the direction across the street and down the block from the station, “the place with the glowing red sign.”
Vic left his car at the station lot and waited for a few trucks to rumble slowly by before he crossed the street. He was the only pedestrian in the area. Some crows squawked loudly by a dumpster in an alley as he passed. A dog barked from somewhere. The café looked to be an unassuming little place, tucked away in the corner of a redbrick building. As he got closer, he tried to spot a name on the façade or on the window, but all he saw was a neon sign above the door reading Café in glowing red letters. Nothing else, just Café. He stopped in front of the main window to see if anyone was inside. Sure enough, he saw a few hungry souls in the dim light consuming food and drink at the tables and the booths. He hesitated for a moment and then opened a squeaky door and went in.
It was pleasantly warm inside. The smell and sight of food helped kick in his appetite right away. A Johnny Mathis piece played on the jukebox. In fact, the whole place looked like something out of the Forties or Fifties. Vintage movie posters and cigarette ads hung from the walls, along with other pieces of retro kitsch like a big Route 66 sign and a Mobil Exxon horse replica. The formica tables and chairs were an odd mixture of pastel colours in a variety of shapes and sizes. The scruffy linoleum floor was black and white checkerboard.
Everyone at the tables and booths stopped what they were doing and stared at Vic with vacant expressions as he stood by the door. He saw all the booths were taken so he headed toward the small counter near the back since no one else was there.
The waitress also gave Vic a curious stare as he sat down. “Something to drink?” she asked.
He glanced at the wide selection of beers on the menu and was tempted to order one, but knew it would lead to several more so he decided against it. All he wanted to do was get some food and coffee in his belly so that he would have enough energy for that final push home. Once there, he could break out his favourite whiskey and get as drunk as he wanted.
“Coffee’s good,” he answered.
She served the coffee in a wide-rimmed white cup, with a little spoon on the saucer to mix the sugar and cream. He clinked the spoon against the cup just to hear that ting. Coffee always seemed to taste better in cups like those. Later, he ordered a steak, with mashed potatoes and vegetables.
As he waited for the meal, the waitress came by with the coffee decanter in hand
“A refill?” she asked.
He stared at her lean, toned arms as she poured. She looked like she was in her late thirties-early forties, but still looked pretty good. The sleeve on her blouse partially covered a floral tattoo below her shoulder. He noted her name on the tag pinned to her lapel: Marie
“Just passing through?” Marie asked.
“Going east or west?”
“West. To Seattle.”
“Have you checked the weather?”
“No. Should I?”
“I hear there’s a big front coming over the mountains later today.”
“Thanks for the info.”
It looked like she wanted to say more, but someone signalled her from the tables so she left. Her low and sultry voice resonated in his mind.
The gas station attendant was right. The large T-bone steak was tender and juicy. The mashed potatoes were smooth and creamy, and a tasty hollandaise-like sauce topped the fresh, steamed vegetables.
As he was eating, an old man came in and sat a few stools away from him at the counter. Soon, the old man started tapping a little spoon against his coffee cup. It sounded like he was trying to keep in rhythm with the songs on the jukebox, except that he was always way off beat.
After he finished his meal, Vic looked at the dessert menu, but the incessant tapping continued and was getting on his nerves. He glared at the old man, thinking he would take notice and stop, but he just kept going. The old man tilted his head off to one side and stared straight ahead with glassy eyes, lost in his own imaginary world, perhaps induced by medications of some sort.
“Hey, man. Could you lighten up with the tapping, please?” Vic asked.
The old man stopped tapping and slowly turned to Vic with an icy stare and a scowl. There were wrinkles all around his face and he hadn’t shaved in days. His snow-white hair was stringy and unkempt.
“To hell with you,” the old man said slowly, in a dry, raspy voice.
“The hell with you too, old-timer,” Vic said. “Have a good day.”
“Oh, I will” he said then turned away. “I will.”
The old man tapped his spoon again. His scowl morphed into a faint smile, exposing crooked, yellow teeth.
Vic glared at him with a clenched fist. He had an urge to say and do something else, but figured it wasn’t worth it.
Just then, Marie came by to clear off the plates.
“Anything else?” she asked
“No, I’ll just take the check and go now.”
He left her a nice tip and started to put his coat on.
“Good luck the rest of the way,” she said, with a slight look of concern on her face.
“Thanks. Good food here and…even better service,” he said with a smile.
As he walked out of the place, he felt her watching him the whole way.
When he got outside, it was already dark and the air seemed colder than before. He saw his breath as he exhaled. After he got into the car, he turned on the radio for a weather report but only got country western music and talk shows. He wanted to get home that night, but Marie put just enough doubt in his mind about the weather to make him hesitate. He then decided that going to a bar for a quick drink would be the best way to quell his growing anxiety. After that, he could either push on or stay in a motel if it looked like it was going to snow.
As he drove down the main drag toward the Interstate, he saw a likely looking place with cars and trucks parked around it. He could hear the honky-tonk music playing inside as soon as he got out of his car. Once inside, he nestled up to the far corner of the counter and ordered a shot of Tullamore Dew. Shortly afterwards, he chased it down with a microbrew. He felt relieved when he saw the weather report on the TV screen state that rain was falling in Western Washington but that no snow was expected in the mountains, except in the highest elevations.
As he nursed his beer and listened to the country western band playing on the stage, he began to dwell on the current condition of his life—specifically, the divorce. He reconciled himself to the fact that he got shafted on the settlement when the divorce was finalized three years before. She ended up with the house, the fat alimony checks, and custody of Jake, but at least she didn’t get into his modest pension. He could only blame himself for all of it. He had waited until his mid-thirties before he decided to settle down in life, thinking he was done with all the bad habits he had indulged in before. During the first ten years of the marriage, he was happy and did everything right. After that, those old habits started creeping back like a bad dream: the drinking and the gambling and, worst of all, the philandering. Marriage counselling didn’t help so they got the divorce. At first, it wasn’t too bad because at least he got to see Jake a couple of times a month, but after the cross-state move, things got worse. Each time he visited them, he felt more unwelcome in their presence. The breakfast together with the two of them in the morning was tension-filled and terse.
When he got out of the place at 9 p.m. after a few more beers, he felt more wasted than ever. He was only two-plus hours from Seattle, but knew there was a rest area between Ellensburg and the Pass where he could crash. Just outside of the town, he saw a sign noting a rest area fifteen miles away. He turned on the radio, but got nothing but scratchy country western stations. The CD player stopped working a few weeks before. He knew he should’ve gotten it fixed before this trip, but never got around to it.
Soon, it began to rain and there was hardly any traffic on the road. The car glided smoothly over a recently paved surface. The engine had a low and restful hum. Everything was quiet in the car, except for that annoying little rattle coming from the safety belt behind him.
When he drove into the rest area, the first thing he noticed was that the place was almost empty. There was only one other truck in the area. Not long after he parked his car, he felt alone and exposed in the lot. If anyone was out there waiting for him to fall asleep and then break in and rob him, he wouldn’t stand a chance. He stared balefully at the lone truck parked in the other side of the area. Maybe there were people inside the truck waiting to do the deed to lone travellers like himself. He thought about driving away, but was too exhausted to do so. A minute later, he fell asleep.
He woke up with a start. It was 11:30. The truck was gone. He was the only one in the lot. Out of habit, he checked his cellphone for messages but saw that he was out of the service area. Suddenly, he had a feeling that someone—or something—was watching him in the darkness and was creeping CLOSER. He sped out of the area and back onto the interstate.
It was nearly midnight when he powered up the grade toward the summit. Everything was going well except for that rattling noise behind him. It became even more irritating because a dull thumping sound preceded the rattling every time he turned the wheels even slightly along the winding road. He had been aware of the damn noise along certain roads for weeks, but always found ways to ignore it. Eventually, it just seemed to go away. He turned on the radio to distract himself from the sound but got nothing but static.
He was in a dead zone now, with no radio or cellphone reception.
After a few more minutes, the intermittent rattling continued and with greater frequency. Finally, he just couldn’t take it anymore. He reached far back with one hand still on the wheel, grasped the offending buckle and pulled it from the wall. That seemed to work and he continued up the ascent toward the pass.
Very soon thereafter, though, the sound came back again: THUMP-THUMP RATTLE-RATTLE, and then again. He couldn’t get his mind off of it and stifled a growing anger, so he stepped harder on the gas. He just wanted to get home, and fast, and craved the thought of his favourite whiskey burning down his throat. Afterwards, if he was in the mood, he could call his new “friend”, Petra, a Slavic Goth brunette. He had met her online the month before and she was usually available 24/7 to him. There was no romance in their encounters. It was all business, and that’s the way he liked it.
He rounded up a curve and saw a large area of dim lights ahead. The road flattened out and he saw a sign that indicated he had reached the Snoqualmie Pass summit. The rain had turned into a steady, light drizzle that came down in a kind of foggy mist that swirled in the overhead lights. On the other side of the road, he passed by a few dark buildings that were part of a ski complex. Meanwhile, that infernal rattling sound continued to torment him.
Once again, he turned on the radio but got nothing but static. He punched in the preset stations and then—voila—out came some music from the classical music station. It was a rich, lush orchestration accompanied by a chorus of voices. He must’ve gotten a good bounce from being on the summit. The music faded a little as he drove along. He turned up the volume and adjusted the dial slightly to get a better signal. It sounded like something from Respighi or Debussy. There seemed to be something strangely synchronistic about the music and the dark and misty scene outside.
As soon as he started to descend from the summit, he lost the signal. He adjusted the knob but it was no use. He turned on the radio full blast, desperately searching for a station. Even within the deafening static, he could hear the rattling. For a moment, he heard a garbled, shrill voice within the static that sounded like a plea or a warning, but he couldn’t make out any of the words. The signal faded as soon as he went around a turn. When he turned off the radio, he felt his pulse shoot up. Each time, the rattling seemed to increase in intensity…like pins and needles…being pierced…into his skull. The sound reminded him of how he felt in the restaurant when the old man tapped his spoon against the cup. At least there, he could walk away from it, but now in the car, he was unable to do so. He felt trapped and tortured in his seat like an Inquisition victim, unable to get away…THUMP-THUMP RATTLE-RATTLE.
That did it. In a tormented rage, he lunged back and tried to grab the buckle with one hand, as he did before, except this time he could not find it. He snapped off his safety belt so he could reach back a little farther, but still it eluded his grasp. In desperation, he took his eyes off the road for just a moment, turned around and saw the thing, a-glistening in the darkness just behind him. He jerked it from the wall.
When he turned back to face the road, he saw with sudden panic a near hairpin-like turn looming up ahead. He slammed on the brakes but, by doing so, quickly spun out of control on the wet and slippery pavement. He busted straight through the flimsy guardrail and then went careening down a steep and long embankment. With the safety belt off, he instinctively grabbed the steering wheel with all his strength to keep from being thrown out, as the car tumbled round and round and down, amid the deafening sounds of crunching metal and broken glass. He felt a sharp jolt of pain, and then another, as the steering wheel pushed deep into his ribs and torso. Glass and metal flew around, gashing into his head and arms…doors and wheels falling off… more jolts of pain in his chest…round and round and down. Finally, the car crashed to a body-crunching stop.
For the first few moments, he dared not move and tried to gather his senses. All he knew was that, somehow, he was still alive. Gradually, his eyes got used to the dark. The car landed right side up, but angled upward. One of the dimmer lights was still on, barely illuminating the area. He was pinned in a shell of his car. One of the doors busted off during the fall. The windshield glass was almost gone. Some chunks of glass were on the floor and passenger seat. Everything was silent except the sound of a flowing river nearby.
As soon as he tried to move, he felt pain all over his body. The worst of it was around his ribs and chest cavity where the steering wheel was jammed in. Each breath he took seemed more difficult than the last. He wondered how long he could hang on. Surely, someone would see the broken guardrail soon and investigate the scene below. He hoped that if he stayed very still and did not move, he could last until they came.
He couldn’t help but think about the day and all the fatal little choices he had made that pushed him to this point: the stupid, split-second impulse to take his eyes off the road; drinking too much in the bar; and the decision to eat at the Café. For some reason, he thought about Marie and the genuine concern on her face when he left. And before that, the dreary drive through the Palouse and the stressful time with his family. The only good thing he could remember from the day was the food he had at the Café. Yes, it was a damn fine supper. Perhaps it was his last supper. He managed to let out a raspy laugh.
His flow of thoughts stopped when he felt a sharp tear inside his chest, followed by a somewhat pleasant, warm sensation around his ribcage. A moment later, he felt his throat tighten up and liquid trickle into his mouth and then down his chin. He swirled the liquid a little in his mouth. It was blood. He felt a wave of panic set in. His throat tightened up even more and he began to cough. More blood trickled out of his mouth. He tried to stifle the cough and take short, shallow breaths.
He stared up at the sky in this desperate condition, trying to calm himself. The sound of the gently flowing river nearby helped a little. It reminded him of the time he went hiking in the Cascades along a river with Jake and his friends, just five years ago. For the longest time, he felt that he was a good father, and they did many things together. Hell, he even coached Jake’s soccer team and he could see that Jake was getting good at the sport. He doubted they had soccer teams where Jake lived now, but wasn’t sure because he never asked him. That was only one of many things he never asked him. He could tell that Jake was unhappy about where he was living, but never bothered to find out why. It all seemed so clear to Vic now. All he had to do was just sit down with his son and talk to him about stuff, to clear the air between them and let him know that he still cared. He made a vow to do so next time – if he could only hang on!
Just then, he saw a few beams of light coming from the area where he crashed through the guard rail. Soon, more beams of light shone in the darkness. Some looked like flashlights aimed down in his direction. A little later, he heard the sound of voices, punctuated by a single “…hell-oooo…” and then another. He tried to yell back, but all that came out was a muffled cough. He desperately gasped for breath. He couldn’t answer back. How else could he signal them? The horn! He pushed against the knob. The horn blared briefly, and then shorted out. He pushed the knob again, but no sound came out
The lights from above seemed to be getting closer. He heard another voice say something like “…we’re coming down.” He also thought he heard an ambulance siren in the distance.
Every breath was painful now. The blood stopped flowing out of his mouth, but his chest felt tight and constricted. He tried to hang on with all his strength, but it was becoming harder for him to do so. Soon he began to feel dizzy and disoriented. He was slipping away. Somehow, in this state of disembodied unreality, he knew that he was dying and that the end was coming very soon. There was no use in fighting it. It was time to just let go. Strangely, it was a comforting realization. But upon that thought, he felt another strong sensation welling up within him, far more intense than that vague sense of relief. It felt like a kind of growing fullness…something new and large, and undefined… rising up, ready to release.
The wind kicked up a little. With his few remaining breaths, he felt cold but gentle breeze penetrate through his clothes and caress his broken body. Everything was very still, save the sudden sight of ghostly steam emanating from the ruptured radiator…faintly hissing. And fainter still, he heard another sound coming from the car…from an object just behind him dangling in the wind.
It was the last thing that he heard before everything went black: THUMP…THUMP…RATTLE-RATTLE…RATTLE…