Downhill

 

Roger A. Jurack

 

 

In the northern Rockies, Interstate 90 winds eastward like an arthritic serpent from Spokane through the Idaho panhandle to Montana. It's hairpin turns and ear-popping grades are greatly admired by tourists and as soundly cursed by truck drivers. At the end of its twisting ascent the road reluctantly flattens at Lookout Pass. But downhill, like a vengeful Phoenix, the highway resurrects its evil nature and converts the first fourteen miles of Montana into a white-knuckle amusement ride. Rubber marks on the pitted concrete and twisted guard rails bear somber and silent witness to the fates of vehicles and drivers whose store of luck and skill have been bankrupted by the twin treacheries of capricious weather and highway design. Traveling those fourteen miles with the fingers of rain, snow, fog, and darkness closed coldly on your heart, tales of bad luck, lives lost, apparitions, and left-handed gifts become all the more believable…

* * *

"Damn useless kids!" Dennis Braynard swore at his fogged windshield.

First came the call to work and then the endless doorbell. Kids! Freeloaders looking for a Halloween handout, bent on destroying his chance to sleep before the roundtrip all-nighter over the pass to Montana. He'd chased the last batch of costumed beggars down his driveway wielding his flashlight, shouting every cussword he could remember and inventing as he went. Little assholes! Let them drive eighty thousand pounds of truck, trailer, and freight up and down miles of twisting grade without sleep! Maybe then the little bastards could afford to buy their own candy and leave him the hell alone! Fueled by the injustice of it, his rage simmered as he drove too-quickly through the early night. Gusts of cold rain laced with flying leaves swept fitfully through his headlights.

"It's snowing on the pass". Dispatch had been almost smug in sharing the bad news. Well why not, he thought savagely. They never had to get their asses out in the dark and the rain and the snow on that Christly broken-back pass. Downshifting rather than stopping, he jerked the pickup through an empty intersection, fishtailed, and began to accelerate.

Completely wrapped in his angry thoughts, the hollow explosion of an egg against the windshield caught him totally unaware. Immediately following his first reactions of shock and fear, rage exploded. He jerked the pickup to an angled stop, kicked open the door and propelled himself into the rain, looking wildly for the author of this latest outrage. He was rewarded only with the sound of running footsteps and a retreating scream: "TRICK OR TR-E-E-A-T, ASSHO-O-O-L-E!!"

* * *

The four of them ran laughing and slipping wetly down the side street. In spite of the weather it had been a reasonably successful Halloween. A full case of toilet paper draped select residences, and almost two dozen eggs had been successfully expended, including the latest spectacular shot at a fast moving pickup truck. A supply of grease pencils and shaving cream waited in the car, and after making some artful (though necessarily rapid) applications to targeted windows, the game plan called for a retreat into the darkness and some "hands-on" socializing. Overall it promised to be a most satisfying outing…

* * *

Rage eclipsed rational thought. Dennis gunned his pickup into a tire-spinning donut and aimed it down the side street. "You bastards!" Nearly panting from the overload of adrenalin he goaded the pickup in a sashaying path down the deserted street, completely oblivious to rain, darkness, and the upward progress of the speedometer needle. Half a block ahead lights came on and a vehicle moved away from the curb. Dennis' lips pulled back in a grimace of satisfaction. "Trick or treat, shitheads!" and he pressed the accelerator to the floor.

"Jesus! Shit!!" Where a second before Tommy had seen only the image of Nick and his girlfriend in the rearview mirror, now came the flashing glare of careening headlights hell-bent on running him down. At OHS, Tommy clung desperately to a 2.0 GPA only by virtue of his grade in Auto Shop. Every bit of his academic ability resided under the hood of his car and he called urgently upon it. Tires spun, steamed, gripped, and the car screamed up the street.

Locked in the grip of his towering anger, Dennis had wanted to injure and maim, but the speed difference between his vehicle and that of his retreating target had been reduced to almost nothing. The resulting impact was enough to smash the car's taillight, but his truck deflected jarringly up onto the curb and he lost control. Halfway down the block he came to a bruising stop against a utility pole. His torso rebounded off the steering wheel. The horn bleated once and was still. The object of his rage disappeared into the night and the rain.

Savage complaints issued from every quadrant of Dennis' body. With the pain and shock of those messages came a return to the realities of the night. He was hurt. He was late to work. His truck was jammed against a power pole. "Oh Gawd damn!! You stupid shit!" It was both prayer and epithet. The driver' door opened with metallic protest and he nearly fell. Gloomily he surveyed the wreck: the damage was significant but all four tires were still up. If it would star he might still make the terminal. He twisted the ignition key with desperate hope. After tense minutes of grinding, the engine caught raggedly and held. Three miles later, at the end of a trail of smoking antifreeze and broken parts, Dennis finally made it to work.

* * *

Snowflakes began to mix with the rain as he rolled his semi through town, up the ramp and onto the interstate. He made the first downshift as the road began to rise toward the pass. Feeling his pain strongly, and filled with the knowledge of the work before him, Dennis cursed silently.

Seven miles later he was still cursing – the road had become an ascent into a snow and fogbound hell. He had run a gauntlet of spun-out trucks, creeping cars, and for one panicked second he had felt his wheels lose traction as he maneuvered by a dark silhouette kneeling in the snow trying to chain up. Complementing all the other stresses of the night, Dennis's sweating progress up the hill had been punctuated with alternating bouts of rage and gut-churning recrimination: rage at the weather and traffic, and recrimination for what he had just tried to do. What was the official language? Vehicular manslaughter? How long did that get you at the crossbar hotel? And by-the-way, don't expect much from your pickup truck when you get back either…

Mile-marker zero and the sign welcoming him to Montana interrupted his thoughts: fourteen miles left to go on the pass.

Fourteen miles of downhill, he reminded himself savagely – fourteen miles of sweating and demanding work, tip-toeing eighty thousand pounds down an icy, and twisting grade. He rolled past the line of trucks pulled over and sleeping at the top of the summit and thought enviously how it would be to crawl into the warm sleeper and forget all of this: the grade, the snow, and his physical pain. But freight had to arrive on time or it meant unemployment – and unemployed truck drivers were not an endangered species. He geared down and eased the truck carefully into the first set of curves. His entire body throbbed like a rotted tooth.

* * *

To the west, as the town dozed under lowering clouds, emergency lights began to strobe blues and reds and whites. Like time-lapsed photography, their progress was fitfully reflected in the squalls of rain and snow.

Fighting his own bad weather, Officer Curten drove rapidly but carefully through the town's nearly deserted streets. In 15 years with the State Police he had never scratched a vehicle and had no intention of ending his careful stewardship tonight. In any case the official shorthand of the radio dispatch had indicated the speed of his arrival would probably not matter one way or another - the rollover was just out of town.

"No blockage. Multiple PI. EMS and the coroner are on the way." In concise radio language that meant lots of bodies, but at least the wreck was off the road and the medical cavalry was on the way. Good: at least he wouldn't have to stand in the weather directing traffic – but that was the only good news. Someone's luck had gone sour tonight and he was going to have to sort through the pieces. A ghoul's task on a ghoul's night, he reflected morosely. Cold wind buffeted his car.

* * *

Halfway through the second downhill curve, Dennis's slush-covered mirrors illuminated with the glow of overtaking headlights. Sourly marveling at the maniac who wanted to pass him in these lousy conditions, he eased the truck as far to the right as he could. The icy mirror-glow rapidly became two unfocused orbs, and then the side of his trailer was progressively washed with light as the car moved up on him. The vehicle overtook him steadily and easily without skidding or slipping. In a few moments it moved past his left fender, spewing waves of slushy snow that resounded hollowly against the cab and windshield. As it moved back into his lane dragging its roostertail of road-slop, the truck headlight beams revealed only blowing snow and rain. The only solid detail he saw was the brief and dull glint of a taillight, then - nothing. Darkness and the storm enveloped him again.

* * *

Dennis' careful progress had taken him three miles downhill when the snow began to slacken, but fog kept the visibility from improving. That's why he didn't see the outstretched arm of the hitchhiker until he was nearly atop him.

"Oh God! No!!" Only years of driving experience stopped him from locking the brakes and entering a jackknife – and a jackknife would have meant a death-roll down the mountain. Even so, he wasn't sure he would survive his reflexive swerve to miss the person standing at the edge of the road. But as fast as it had begun it was over. After uncertain seconds the truck settled down and only the rapid tattoo of his heartbeat remained to convince him that he hadn't imagined the whole thing.

What in the name of Hell was a hitchhiker doing on top the pass? Was there a wreck he hadn't seen? Was it real or just a trick of light and shadow? Dennis' unspoken questions urgently sought rational explanation. His heart slowed gradually to normal, and the trembling began to leave his hands.

"Crazy. I'm going crazy tonight." The sound of his own voice pushed back the tension and the dark, but he reached toward his shirt pocket for a cigarette and came away empty: he hadn't smoked for a year. He snorted at his own folly and began to relax in the seat.

His mirrors lighted up with the reflection of overtaking traffic.

* * *

Flares, amber lights, and an orange "Wreck Ahead" sign announced that he wasn't first on the scene. That was good. Somehow with a bad wreck it was easier if there were someone else nearby to talk to. Mike Curten keyed the radio with his arrival time and stepped from the patrol car. He pointed the beam of his flashlight down the parallel tire tracks that led off the road and down the embankment. The incongruous glow of a taillight gleamed like a faint red eye beyond where the tracks vanished in the darkness. The spotlight beam from the tow truck, diffuse in the mist, faintly illuminated the dark mass of an upside-down car. The driver of the tow truck hailed him from the darkness: "Ain't been down yet. Just got here and got the signs out."

Busy descending the wet slope, Mike didn't bother to reply. His throat was tightening - it always did on bad ones. There was blood on the grass. Sooner than he wanted, he arrived at the wreck.

* * *

Dennis slumped over the steering wheel, breath coming in racking sobs. He was trembling uncontrollably. That he had been able to find the fog line and bring the truck to a stop was a miracle - and he would never remember having done it.

Out of nowhere. Again! This time it hadn't been a hitchhiker but a car parked in his lane. His headlights hadn't picked it out until the last second, and this time he had stood on the brakes and tried to steer away. The truck skidded and the trailer had begun to come around. He had been a helpless, screaming passenger, every muscle locked with eyes closed in fierce denial. The truck slid into the car...and there was no impact! The hoarse screaming of his tires had gone on for eternity. When he had opened his eyes the muted beams of the headlights revealed only drifting fog. His truck had come to a halt with the trailer angled across both lanes, cab pointed downhill, engine silent. Time without increment had passed before he had been able to restart the engine and move to the shoulder.

"Christ!" As his brain began to check back in, Dennis knew that he had to go back. There had been no impact, therefore there could have been no damage, no...what? "Christ." He repeated softly, then opened the cab door and stepped down into the night.

* * *

Mike Curten straightened up, wiping his lips. If you ever got used to it, the oldtimers always told him, it was time to do something else for a living. No problem: his stomach had just proved that he definitely wasn't used to it! The car must have been traveling like a bat out of hell when the driver lost it. Kids. Three kids who would never see graduation. Who would never see anything, he corrected himself, not even the end of this Halloween. Carnage was the only accurate descriptor: the vehicle had rolled several times. No need to check for vital signs. No way to check for vital signs. When he had first shined his flashlight into the car, he had recoiled in shock: two of the victims lay entwined in the back seat, surrounded by what at first looked eerily like white trim on the inside of a coffin. On closer examination, the "trim" revealed itself to be shaving cream - several cans of it lay in the grass. The third occupant, presumably the driver, was crumpled half in, half out, the drivers' side window - only the hands betrayed her gender.

The wash of arriving headlights interrupted Mike's examination. Good! Let EMS and the coroner take over so he could get on with the technical details. Weather, speed, and road condition were dry statistics and could be quantified; mortality could not.

* * *

Dennis climbed stiffly into the cab of his truck. There had been nothing behind him. He had walked back, slowly and nervously following the meager beam of his flashlight. The tire tracks from his truck stood out like giant grease-pencil marks across the concrete, and the smell of scorched rubber drifted in the fog. But there was no car. There was only silence and the night. And the cold.

Cold! Shivering in violent spasms as shock and cold alternated their attacks, Dennis eased his truck back onto the roadway. Habit, rather than thought process, controlled his actions. His eyes darted from road to mirror back to road with a rapidity that would have induced vertigo in a normally functioning brain – but for Dennis, normality had long ago vanished into the night. His eyes had become liars and his senses had failed. Operating on his last thin reserves of strength and rational thought, Dennis rolled downhill.

* * *

After the coroner's terse verdict, the bodies had been efficiently and respectfully removed. Several lights provided illumination, and Mike photographed the wreck and the scene from every required angle. All appeared straightforward except for two annoying details: a wallet with a drivers' license that didn't match any of the occupants, and a fresh swatch of paint near a broken taillight. The interview of the witness who had reported the accident confirmed that the kids' car had been the only traffic on the road: so much for hit-and-run and paint damage. But he still had a wallet belonging to one Thomas Evan Allbright who, according to the coroner's examinations, was definitely not present. Wallet stolen? Prank? He sighed. Loose ends had a nasty habit of coming up at evidentiary proceedings. One last effort to make:

"I need everybody with a flashlight over here. We need to spread out and search the area from the car to the woods. We're looking for another body."

* * *

Dennis clutched the steering wheel like a drowning person clutches a floating log. In spite of the heater's full output he was freezing cold and getting colder- perhaps a cab vent had popped open during his panic-stop? As Dennis' mind ploddingly considered the source of the cold, headlights appeared behind him. A deeper chill settled over him that had nothing to do with the weather. There had been no other downhill traffic tonight except for those disembodied headlights that had twice gone by him. The first time had been just before the hitchhiker. The second had been the parked car. The lights began to move inexorably up the side of his truck…

"Third time's the charm, third time's the charm, third time's the charm." Unaware he was gibbering aloud, Dennis stared wildly at the mirror. "Not this time, not THIS TIME you bastard!" He swung the truck sharply into the passing lane, and its wheels churned gravel at the edge of the road. Fighting the steering wheel, he looked and saw the impossible: the two lambent eyes hadn't changed position. And they kept coming. The road twisted sharply right.

At a primal level Dennis mind urgently communicated to him that going off the road meant death. He tried to turn the steering wheel in recovery - and he couldn't move it! Cold from the crypt washed over him as an arm reached from behind him – and locked the steering wheel against his salvation! Icy breath was on his neck as the truck left the road and tilted down. The up-rushing image in the windshield foretold his death. Even through his own scream Dennis could hear the hoarse and rasping chuckle:

"Trick or treat, asshole!"

The cab of the truck slewed and the impact propelled cargo through the nose of the trailer. Twisting metal crushed his neck against the steering wheel and Dennis checked out for the last time.

* * *

"Hey! Over here. A live one!!" Flashlights converged on the voice.

"Mystery solved." Mike felt faint relief. Medics huddled busily over the body. "Is he going to make it?"

"Probably not. Looks like he Peter-Panned out the window when it rolled. He's gonna need some new plumbing most ricky-tick." The medic's voice went from clinical to incredulous. "Jesus! Would you look at that?"

"Look at what?" Mike asked, edging closer into the circle of light.

"The guy's still hanging onto the steering wheel for the luvva Pete!!"

Epilogue

"What's the deal?" The surgical mask didn't hide the irritation in his voice. Thirty minutes ago he had been at a Halloween party happily debating the merits of thongs as appropriate costumes for witches and Cinderellas. Now he faced hours of work in a cold operating theater.

"Name's Dennis Braynard: former truck driver and, happily, organ donor". The attendant looked up from the clipboard. "Most fortuitous as it turns out."

The resident grunted. "So what happened?"

"First snow on the Pass. Truck wrecked going downhill. A little odd though."

"How so?"

"Well there were a couple of trucks spun out uphill on the Idaho side, and it shut down all the eastbound traffic. This guy had the downhill all to himself and still managed to drive off the road. Cops said skid marks and tire tracks were all over the highway for a couple of miles. He must have been having a hell of a time!"

Another grunt. "So who's getting the spare parts?"

"A very fortunate Mr. Thomas Allbright of our own fair city - lone survivor of a rollover that killed three of his high school classmates tonight. He is impatiently waiting in our ICU."

The resident pulled back the rubber sheet and leaned over the table. "Congratulations Dennis, you get to be young again. I hope you liked kids."

 

 

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Author Bio

Roger writes from broad life experience, having had major careers in naval and civil aviation, the Foreign Service, and western law enforcement. He comments ruefully that writing fiction is his latest effort at starvation. His award winning, fiction, both science and horror, has appeared regularly in Alien Skin magazine. He lives and writes in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, surrounded by Lake Superior and his beloved Springer Spaniels.

 

 


 

 

 

"Downhill" Copyright © 2003 Roger A. Jurack. All rights reserved.
Previously published by Alien Skin magazine. Re-printed by permission of the author.

 

This page last updated 10-29-03.

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