Wreck on the Highway – Finished Draft

Here it is, without further ado. The 2011 Striking Prose winner for short fiction… Wreck on the Highway

(Word format doesn’t translate to wordpress, so ignore the formatting.)

Frank watched the cross recede, with the tall grass beside the highway, in his rearview mirror. The summer heat was gone. His jaw hung as he coasted the half mile to the intersection, eyes frozen on the fading shape, then he looked back at the road, sniffed, and steered his not so Grand Cherokee around the corner. He accelerated hard down the short stretch of highway and drove into town spraying winter gravel in the August heat. He sped down mainstreet, blowing through the school zone. Tires squealed in dissent as he pulled into a space in front of the Hardware store. Frank loped halfway across the sidewalk as the truck door slammed. Tin bells on the door to the shop jingled before he came up short, stopped and turned back to his truck. He jogged back and leaned in the truck window to the console, to snatch his wallet, and he was off again into the window-lit façade of the shop.
Ken. Hey, Ken? He heard the snapping of an impact driver from the pass-through into the mechanical shop at the back. Ken ran a hardware store out the front, but made his living in the heavy duty ag. mechanical shop next door. The former was always open, but empty unless a customer came through.
Frank walked across the oily black concrete to where Ken ran the ratche, pulling the tire off a big diesel four wheel drive tractor. Crack crack crack crack crack crack The mechanic wore a huge coverall, short at the cuffs and ankles, and size 14 steel-toed workboots. At six foot four, Frank looked him in the eye, but Ken outweighed him by a hundred pounds easily.
Hey Ken, how’s things?
Not bad. It’s busy. The big man’s voice rolled like a half empty oil drum.
Hey, I was wondering if you’ve got any air tool couplings? and hoses? I need a splitter and a couple of 50 foot lines to run a pair of nailers.
Yep, give me a sec and I’ll come up front.
Cool. Thanks. Frank walked back through to the store and stood at the counter for a couple of minutes. Crack crack crack crack. He wandered up and down the short aisles, looking for the parts he needed. He found the hoses but no fittings, threw them over his shoulder and kept moving. Crack crack crack. Frank stacked the coiled hoses on the counter and did another circuit of the store, checking his watch. The dead smell of gear oil hung in the little shop. He went to where he found the hoses, found a male coupling and snatched it off the peg. There were two empty pegs beside it. He checked his watch again.
Ken came walking up the aisle from the back.
Hey, Chief asked me to see if you could supply us with some tires for the County Pump. We got a quote from Mo’s in town, but if you can supply and install for a better price, he’d rather keep the business out here.
Yeah, no problem, you want me to fax it over?
Sure. Thanks. Put down a date and time you can change them over in as well, we’ll need to call the department out of service while the pump is down, so Hallsley Fire can cover for us.
No problem. Did you find what you needed?
Yeah, the hoses, and a male end, but I need a splitter and two female C couplings.
I’ve got threaded pipe here in the back to split the line, but all we have for couplings is what’s in the aisle. As he spoke he walked along the wall mounted bins digging out the parts.
Yeah, there’s nothing there.
Oh, you checked? The big man set the pieces for the splitter on the counter and moved down the main aisle to where Frank had been.
No, there’s nothing there. You said you had some. You don’t have any in the back?
No, sorry, whatever’s in stock is on the shelf.
Well fuck Ken! I’ve been waiting here for ten minutes.
Yep… I thought I had a couple left. Ken’s voice dropped in tone. He turned and faced his customer, his chin up a little bit.
Okay, I guess I’ll drive into town then. He pulled out his wallet and smacked the debit card down on the counter.
Alright. Ken walked back behind the till and rang it through, his eyes on Frank’s.
Thanks. Frank grabbed the coiled hoses and threw them over his shoulder, turning to push his way out the door as the receipt printed. Ken tore it off and threw it in the wastepaper basket. Stood for a moment, then smiled and walked back to his work as Frank tore off down the street. He shook his head.

Frank cut the last of the filets, carrying them over to the oak baluster railing where Dean knelt at the top of the stairwell. He handed them to his partner and went back to where he had been sanding the wall cap. Dean laid the thin layers of hardwood into place, sliding each spindle tight against its filet as he did.
Don’t forget to glue those.
10-4. I’m just checking to make sure the spacing’s right.
Yeah, Dean, I measured it. So glue ‘em down and tack them in.
Dean kept on snapping the spacers into the base shoe and the cap, and sliding the spindles home, ignoring his friend. Frank started sanding. A minute.
Hey Frank, look. Look, Frank. It’s not right. The spacing.
Yeah, you must have measured wrong Frank.
Wow, I’m glad I checked the spacing on those spindles before I locked them in. Would’ve been a real shit job. Whew. Close.
Okay, wow Dean, it’s a good thing you’re so..
Beeeeeoooooooooooooooooooo. The tones came through the radio in his tool pouch and Frank bolted for the front door, unbuckling as he ran down the stairs. He took the radio and dropped the pouch inside the door as he flew through.
Later Dean.
Supper’ll be in the oven hon.
Frank flipped him off as his hand disappeared through the door.
Frank ran across the dark yard pulling out his keys as he went. He opened the back door of his truck and pulled out his turnout gear. Kicking shoes off. Stepping into the big rubber boots. He pulled the straps up, dragging the pants off the uppers of the boots, to his chest. Flung in his shoes as the radio crackled to life. North-County fire department, this is dispatch. He gunned the engine and roared up the driveway toward the pavement. We have an Alpha level medical emergency at a residence two kilometers East of Image Hill. Patient complains of chest pains and is consc… He leaned over and turned down the volume knob, muting down the dispatcher’s voice. Frank stopped just short of the asphalt and put it in reverse.
Dean heard the door open over the roar of the saw, and turned to see Frank putting his radio back in his tool belt. Back so soon?
Yeah, BLS call. Marv’s covering me this weekend for medicals, so I’m good unless there’s an accident or a fire.
Cool beans.
Frank went back to sanding while Dean set the rest of the spindles. At nine they stopped for cold subs. We done? Frank asked sitting on his cooler.
Yeah, you want a beer?
Dean went downstairs. Came back up with four cold Pil’s. Let’s sit out on the deck.
Frank picked up his cooler and a paint bucket and carried them out into the prairie darkness. Light spread across the dark wood and he moved away from it toward the corner of the house. No wind blew but night creatures occasionally rustled out in the field. He cracked a beer and passed it to Dean, then opened one for himself. They talked quietly as the moon came up, giving it’s sliver of light. The barley heads shone like tiny diamonds for miles. Dark blue or black shadows covered everything else except where the white thorn of light spilled across the deck and dirt then died in the crop. The radio broke the silence occasionally as volunteer firemen updated dispatchers, until they delivered their patient.
Sorry about the spindles.
Are you fucking kidding me?
No, I didn’t need to correct you. It’s stupid.
Forget it. No biggy, but what’s with you lately? You’re edgy.
Yeah, I know. I don’t know why. It’s like that call tonight, I’m wound up. I mean, I’m always wound up, you kind of have to be. But I’m stressed, you know? Every call now my adrenaline is huge, and, it always was like that, cause you never know what you’re going into, but once they call it alpha, you know it’s no big deal. But I don’t unwind anymore.
So what is it? Do you still like the work?
Yeah. I love it. I mean, really, I love it. It’s great to just drop everything and run, you know, it clears your mind and you focus. You know what your priorities are. Work is just work, you know? But there was a call at the beginning of summer, a bad one. Head on collision on the highway out here. He pointed, then took a drink of his beer. It was a kid. Well a couple of kids, but the kid driving one car, he was just gone. And, it was a dirty job, he was all wrapped up in his car, and it was so hot. My captain, Jerry, he was doing the extrication, and we’d packaged the other two patients, from the other car and loaded them in the ambulance. We had to do a search, because the impact was so huge, and we didn’t have anyone responsive enough to be able to tell us if there were any more in the vehicles, so we had to search in the canola. It was about 35 degrees out, and later the cops brought the dogs, but we were all exhausted, trying to walk through that shit, it just pulls you down, and we ran out of water in the first hour. So Jerry’s extricating this kid, and all the other guys are just done, and they’re sitting in the shade of the rescue, and I went over, and I look at Jerry and he looks like death, but he’s been working all afternoon. The car’s not coming apart though, it’s really a mess, and I said do you want me to take over for a bit? and he says no, he’s alright, but finally after a few more minutes, he can’t go anymore, so I take over. It didn’t take long then, but it was so hot, and now the funeral home guys are there, and I finally get the kid out, and they want to take him away, but you can tell they’re a little stressed because they’re wearing wool jackets, you know, nice suits, and white shirts, and it’s just a mess, so I said, hey, don’t worry about it, Ill get him out, I’m already covered in blood and oil an’ shit anyway. So I pick him up, and he’s just a kid, and he’s like a bag of jello, just nothing left of him.
He stopped and finished his beer, setting it down next to the empty one. Then he let out a big breath, and didn’t say anything.
You want another beer?
Frank sat in the dark while Dean disappeared inside.
He came back quickly and twisted off another cap. He handed the bottle to his friend and stood at the edge of the deck, near the drop into nothingness. They drank for a few minutes. Frank looked at the barley heads shining in the moonlight. His eyes appeared serene, his jaw loose.
So, that was it really. It was just a mess, and I was kind of fucked up for a while, but I’m alright. I’m sleeping again, but I’m having trouble with anxiety you know, like the adrenaline won’t shut off.
Yeah. That’s fucked up.
It’s alright.
He paused again. They finished another beer.
So what’s fucked is, you know, I’m over it. I’m good. I don’t think about it much anymore, but every day I’m driving home, and I see this cross on the side of the road now. His parents put it up there I guess, about two weeks ago. And every day I see it, and it reminds me of that day. I see his face, and.. there was a hole in his face, you know, just a tear, in his cheek, and I remember looking down at it, and I could see his teeth, and I just thought wow, this is fucked up. He was like a bag of juice. And every time I see that fucking cross I think of his face.
Dean didn’t say anything.
Tears were pouring down Franks face, and he took a drink. Ha. Sorry. I’m just drunk. I’m sorry. I just need to get over it.
Dude, I don’t even know what to say, you don’t need to say sorry to me.
Mmm, I know. I’m good. It feels good to just let it out you know?
Yep. They sat in the dark.
One day I’m going to run over that fucking cross. And I know, I’m a fucking douche, but I swear to God, one day I’m going to get fucked up, and I’m just going to drive off the road, into the ditch, and wham, I’m going to flatten that fucking thing.
Dean took a drink. I know you hate it man, but that’s just his family grieving dude. You can’t run over the cross.
I’m gonna though. I know it’s selfish. I don’t care. They’re not from here. They don’t live here, for them it’s like this is where he died. They’ll drive past it once a year or something. But I put him in that bus. I cut him out of that wreck and put him in it, and. Fuck this. Frank’s voice broke. I have to see it every day. I’m going to run over that fucking cross one day, because fuck them. Let them put a cross in a graveyard, not on my fucking road. I can’t see that every day. You know?
I don’t know.
The boy jolted awake in time to see the oncoming car; faces of a girl and her father slack in disbelief, without enough time to register fear yet. Imbalance as his car veered over the line, slewed out of his lane by sleeping hands. The adrenaline woke him instantly, and in two more seconds he would sweep the steering wheel back hard into his lane; maybe too far, into the ditch. But there were no more seconds and before he registered it, his body was heaving forward into the steering wheel and the windshield.
The contents of the engine compartment crushed his legs, dragging them under his seat, and when the seatbelt sheared away, that held him inside the car. After impact the boy’s perception became a half dreaming sense of leaping through the air, spinning retardedly. The impact as the car landed only registering as numb motion. Upside down, twenty feet from the point of impact. Then hanging from his broken thighs, upside down as the wreckage rocked once, twice and bumped to a rocking halt.
He looked out at the remains of the oncoming car. A girl looking out the passenger window opened her eyes and looked at him, panting. Then she closed her eyes again. The rest of his life poured out in seconds. He felt no pain; he didn’t know it but his back and neck were broken in many places, his heart had stopped, and although the bones in his face were broken, it didn’t hurt. For a moment he came back up to the surface. Couldn’t speak. Thought I can’t hold onto this, I can feel myself going. If my body dies, my mind, what else can there be? There was the taste of metal so strong it was stifling, the sounds of glass and metal straining gently, and fluids spilling in thin streams. There can’t be anything coming. I wish someone were here with me. His body was without organs, and he was a body without organs. The only sensation, the pressure building as blood rushed to his head and upper body. Blackness poured in from the edges of his vision, he lost consciousness, and before the first witness called an ambulance, the boy died, hanging there, alone.
The stillness of a hot summer afternoon hangs over a car wreck on a quiet prairie highway for a few moments. The fields around it are Canola and the air is sweet and rank with the huge yellow and green codes tilled out as though they will last forever; in a few months, they will be greys and browns. People begin to become aware that something is wrong; cars approaching from both directions slow down, breaking the peace and people run to help the victims, or look on helplessly. The smell of radiator antifreeze and hot gear oil released from differentials and hoses mingle with blood and shit no longer contained, and with rape seed. These can’t be washed away with a shower, with soap, with tears, but they are.
The highway stretches on, to the horizon in both directions; it jaggedly spans a continent. A few miles down the road, the highway passes over a river; and there the peace still holds. Steel and Concrete pillars plunge into cold, deep water that feeds this country like an artery, winding and pulsing under the sweltering sun. On the bank just downstream, a young couple lies naked in the tall grass and the heat, their canoe pulled up from the waters edge, wedged between the smooth river rocks. The killing motors can’t be heard down here, only the smooth roar of the hammered air, washing over the sides of the overpass, and the clank of the rocking steel abutments. They pull on their clothes lazily, hungry and light hearted, jazzed at life and sunshine and each other.
As the young man walks down to the river bank to retrieve a cooler from the boat he has no idea that he has just fathered a little girl. His mind is full of the river air, the tension beginning to settle out of his groin, and of the ravenous hunger he is feeling, now that his mind is not focused. Her mother stretches her arms and rubs them where the grass has left little impressions. She pours water over her face from a bottle, it is cold and jolts her back up to the surface of reality that the heat oppresses. She starts to drag some rocks together to makeshift a table for lunch, and looks over at her lover, wondering for a moment what he’s thinking about; whether he is who she hopes he is, feeling the paradox of the emptiness of autonomy and stronger yet, the ruddy warmth of intimacy and sunshine. He looks up at her, searching her eyes, silently. Two people, connected in more ways than they know, unaware that they can never contain it or trust it, condemned to a life of uncertainty and devotion. They sit down together, to eat.
Frank is building a house for his friend Dean, on top of a hill that commands a view for miles in every direction; Alittal Lake stretches off toward the horizon to the East, reflecting the heat of approaching July. The two of them have just finished securing the last roof truss, which means they’ll begin to sheet it this afternoon. That’s not so bad. It is 36 degrees, stifling on the ground. The lake is less than a quarter mile away and he’s become accustomed to jumping on Dean’s motorcycle at lunch, even his afternoon coffee break, and ripping over to the beach for a quick dip. The wind at sixty miles an hour on wet shorts and a wet t-shirt is a blessing, even for the irreligious, in blistering heat. It’s mid-afternoon, and the sweat is baking off his body now. The mirror surface of the lake shimmers in the distance and he can’t smell the parched dust and emerging barley of the surrounding fields, for lack of any breeze at all.
He tells himself another twenty minutes, and I’ll go… Of course, he cannot know that in twenty minutes he will be frantically pulling on his turnout gear by the back door of his work truck, on a county highway almost ten miles away. He’s been a volunteer fireman for six months; he’s seen a few fender benders, and felt the rush of fighting a couple of small structural fires. This has been, for him, like easing slowly into the shocking cold of water, nothing unmanageable, and he’s become a capable, reliable member of that team. He stores his gear behind the back seat of his truck so he can respond directly from work during the day, in case someone burns their barn down, or falls off the roof cleaning their eaves troughs. The radio tones his department responds to are anticipated now, even welcomed; a chance to drop everything, every worry, and get involved in the world. His friend has a sheet of plywood coming up through the trusses as his radio comes to life now.
Sorry buddy, he smiles. Gotta go.
Frank swings down below the webs of two-by-four, gripping the solid squared edge of the bottom truss chords and let’s himself hang for a moment, gaining his balance, then drops three feet to the main floor of the house. He sheds his tool belt even as he runs down to the front landing, and leaves it in the door opening, taking only his radio. He climbs behind the wheel of his Jeep and peels out a little bit, gunning the engine more than is strictly necessary as he turns onto the two-lane at the end of the driveway. So much for a dip. He reaches forward and flips the toggle switch that turns on the green strobe light in his windshield and winds the truck up well above the speed limit, listening to the radio as he flies toward town.
North-County fire department, this is dispatch. We have a two-vehicle head on collision on highway thirty-two. My caller reports one 10-40. ALS is on route for two victims in critical condition, both require extrication. Location is two miles north of the Highway 1 overpass.
A moment later his chief, 10-4 Control, North county fire department is responding Delta.
10-4 North County.
Control, would you make sure ALS is rolling two ambulances, over.
10-4 North County, do you want STARS en-route?
10-4 Control, we will update you once we’re on scene.
Frank’s heart sinks. This is much bigger than anything he’s responded to before; he’s known it would come for some time and wonders whether he is prepared. He puts the accelerator down, waiting to hear the County pump and the Rescue truck call in. He is approaching town now; if they aren’t rolling before he reaches the intersection, he’ll go to the hall and drive one of the units.
Just as he approaches the off-lane, Control, County rescue, we are 10-8 to the scene, and shortly, Control this is North County pump en-route as well.
10-4 North County. As he flies past the turn-off he sees the rescue truck, lights flashing, roaring around the corner far down main street.
He picks up the radio. Chief, this is 19 responding, en route to the scene.
10-4 19.
Minutes later, he is approaching the scene. He is the first responder there, and he has to consciously stop himself from staring at the carnage on the highway just ahead. The wreck is all in one spot. A car sitting backward, with nothing left right up to the firewall. Screaming. The other car is only a few steps away, rolled up like a pop can that’s been stomped and folded neatly over and over on itself. There are cars stopped all over. Stopped traffic, and he has to pull into the ditch to get close. The truck shudders over rough ditch grass until he stops. Frank jumps out, yanking on his turnout gear in the canola field adjacent to the highway. Howling now in incoherent anguish, and a number of whispering onlookers, some sobbing quietly nearby. His hands begin shaking as he clips up his jacket and yanks his helmet strap.
Another voice.
Can someone call 911 please? I, I think we’re really in trouble. Hey, Could you call 911 for us?
As he turns and walks to the wreckage, he hears the wail of sirens approaching from the highway behind him. He is very thirsty now, and there won’t be water for hours.

The old Jeep tears down the highway toward Image Hill with Steve Earle blaring out of the speakers. Frank reaches into the box of beer and pulls out the last of eighteen he and Rick shared, popping the top onto the passenger side floor, slapping his hand against the dashboard in time with the music. He bellows the words,
I’ve driven those big rigs near all of my lahf,
Ya,an my radio-handle’s Train.
Dahn steep mountain roads on the darkest ahv nights
Ya,I gaht icewater in mah veins.
So ah came over here cuz ah jus didn’t care,
Now ahm older an’ wiser by faaar.
Well if I ever get home to Houston alive then
ah won’t drive a truck anymore.
He shakes his head in time with his drumming hand, his thumb looped in the top of the steering wheel, and takes a pull of his beer. He missed a call earlier tonight, over the beer, but the guys took care of it. The signs of Highway 32 are flying by and suddenly, up on the right shoulder, a white line comes into sight, between the reflective posts. A cross, with flowers and the name of a boy printed carefully across the bright enameled metal. It’s too far away to read, but he knows the name. The hair on the back of his neck stands up, despite the booze, and he begins to lead off to the right, over the line. Bbrrrraaaap. He looks down at the speedometer. Reads a hundred and ten.
Fuck it.
The right tire bites into the gravel then shudders over the rough ditch grass, then the weight of the truck shifts over onto the right wheels and he drops in, washboarding toward the white cross. Suddenly, he can read the writing on the four foot steel monument, then it grows suddenly, and brightens in the intensity of the headlights. Grows immense. Its arms reach out across the hood toward him, and
they lash out, then in a blink it is dragged underneath.
Fuck you.
He roars across a hundred feet of ditch, then stomps on the brakes, the rear end slewing off to the right as the wheels tear up the sod.
Frank sits in the driver’s seat for a moment, looking in the rearview mirror at the red eddies of dust spinning crazily in the light, then sees the outline of the monument, near the ground now. Twisted metal reaching up from the ditch grass. The jeep is idling. He opens the door to get out, it begins to roll forward. For a moment Frank stumbles, disoriented, then he falls back into the driver’s seat and finds the gearshift. He heaves it up into park and tries again.
Frank stands, leaning against the side of the SUV, then staggers around the front. There is a white dent in the hood. One of the bumperlights is hanging from a wire, flashing back and forth across the yellow grass. He rips it off and kicks it across the grass, then turns back to the mangled cross. Walking, he sees it is standing about ten degrees from the ground, attached to a piece of angle iron on the back. Frank reaches down, grabs it, and stumbles over, falling on his shoulder and face, trying to pull the cross out. He stands and tries again. It is stuck firmly, deep into the clay. He pulls the twisted arms, trying to free it, but can’t even bend the ruined metal. Then, suddenly, he straightens, walks back to the Jeep, and punches the accelerator in reverse, door open, until he is almost on top of the wreck. He works quickly now, opening the hatchback. Digs out the tow-strap from the boot, and wraps it around the cross. He throws the looped ends over the trailer ball and falls heavily back into the seat, then guns the accelerator. The engine roars and the truck doesn’t move.
He drops the transmission into gear
and the truck lurches forward, dragging the cross out with a jolt. Frank guns it again for a moment, flipping the cross, bouncing and biting into the soft grassy soil for a few feet. Then he parks it, steps out and unhooks, throws the tow strap into the hatch. He’s in the driver’s seat again, and launches up the bank onto the highway just as a pair of headlights top the hill behind him. In a cloud of dust, the tail lights dance for a moment, then level out, and roar off into the darkness.


~ by Dave on January 25, 2011.

2 Responses to “Wreck on the Highway – Finished Draft”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ashleevelazque0, David Bryant. David Bryant said: Wreck on the Highway – Finished Draft: http://wp.me/pFT00-8X […]

  2. Hi Dave, this is an awesome read! I’m impressed, looking forward to reading more.

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