Two died on impact. Strong and healthy roots from separate and yet entangled family trees gone in an instant.
A third involved in the incident died while the screaming sirens and the bright lights did little beyond clearing a path and offering the sidewalk gawkers a reason for speculation. The rolling white cube carted nothing more than a still warm body. However, if his life’s work meant much, he was in a better place. Being a man of the cloth suggested no less than Heaven.
Two survived, and to add to the chaos of the scene, there was the sixth body.
A body long cold and days dead. It almost seemed as if the corpse dropped from the sky, smack in the middle of the wreckage.
It was young woman with a familiar face. That face had been on the news all week. Her parents were worried sick. There was a fight and Little Miss Thing had an attitude and yet, according to the teary-faced mother, Carrie was a good girl, acting out that’s all. Those words and the accompanying tears were all over the news every day following Carrie’s stroll on Highway 66. It was hours before anyone recognized an issue.
Carrie’s mother discovered something didn’t fit when Sandi, Carrie’s friend from up the highway, called to check on Carrie, said Carrie wasn’t answering texts and said Carrie was to be by… when was that exactly?
A question people ask when the hot ball of worry drops into their bellies, something’s wrong and it’s been that way for hours now, but… how many? When was it, exactly? Oh God.
Mama told the cameras pointed at her front door about what Carrie wore out of the house. It was embarrassing. Mama let Carrie out in a short skirt and a fishnet top that showed off a fluorescent pink halter. On her feet, pink heels completed the look. It was definitely not Grace of God Baptist Church approved.
After acknowledging an issue, neighbours searching the side of the highway found a pink heel that booted that worry like a soccer ball, booted it into all-out panic.
Everybody guessed the likely answer, but nobody said. Girls on the highway had a way of showing up used and abused, final heartbeats drummed and no way to paint a suspect. There were already four that year and the police did not have a clue where to look as thousands took that highway, daily.
When Carrie’s body showed up in the middle of a car accident in the ditch, they thought perhaps that luck had finally swung in their direction. Thank God.
It was a three-car collision. A pack of elk decided it was a good time to cross the highway and a rusty Ford truck plowed into a little Nissan and a mid-size Chevy. It appeared most of those riding in the vehicles had a lazy attitude toward safety belts.
The two survivors shared a wide hospital room with two empty beds, left so, for the sake of the families. All expected an early checkout time, despite whatever hope rattled around minds.
A detective waited outside the door, he had some questions to ask the one woman, but the doctor said no and the nurse told him he’d best skedaddle if he didn’t want a size seven square in his ass. Frustrated, he waited and watched as people came in and out, deathbed exceptions to the rules for family members only.
One clinging to life was just thirty-three, no husband, no kids, a ghost of her former self. She rested, unconscious, her name Eliza Goodman, or Lizzy to her friends. Eliza was on the brink, her lungs needing regular drainage even after the first surgery. It didn’t look good. She was pretty well dead to the world long before anything was official, but that didn’t keep her parents from rushing the two hours along rough highway and into her hospital room.
“Look at her, I mean just look at her,” Maria Goodman said to her husband, she gripped her Bible begging for a red zone defence from the Man Upstairs. Keep that score the way it was, please!
Bryan Goodman put his hand on his wife’s shoulder and pulled her to his chest, knowing exactly what went through her head looking down at that puffy white face. Hell, that was it and he knew it too. They’d discussed it and thought they’d have time to reconcile, let it slide for a few years until she came to her senses, but she’d never get a chance at redemption if she never awoke.
It was the failing of her last relationship and the loss of the baby growing in her oven that turned Eliza sour on the Lord. Neither Bryan nor Maria could say much, not right away. They did their best to give space at such a troubling time, although it was the duty of every good Christian to lead stray sheep back to the flock.
“We should’ve tried harder,” said Maria, tears danced down her face. “She’s doomed if she doesn’t wake up and beg the Lord, beg His forgiveness for what she’d said, doomed.”
Bryan wanted to say something reassuring about the Lord’s way and the His work, but none of it sounded right for that moment. Their daughter was on her way and not to a better place. Good person or not, she didn’t get right with the Lord and that meant she was right with Satan.
A machine attached to the woman in the bed next to Eliza beeped frantically and the woman leaned forward. Her eyes scanned and her arms flailed with frantic swipes, looking for something, needing help.
“Oh Bryan, get the nurse,” said Maria and she ran to the panicked woman.
Bryan raced out of the room, his sneakers squeaking on the shiny, waxed floor.
“What’s going on?” the detective demanded.
Bryan ignored him and got to the nurses’ station. It wasn’t far, but it doesn’t say anything about cardio in the Good Book, not directly anyway. He huffed and gasped, mouthing words. The nurse got the just of it and ran past him.
The detective demanded information from the nurse as she rushed. She ignored him. He stopped Bryan from trailing the nurse all the way in, “What’s happening, is there trouble?” asked the detective. He’d had time to think and it seemed very unlikely that the accident happened on a fortunate spot. He deduced that more likely a serial killer was on her way to a dumpsite. The perp liked rivers and there was a wooded area featuring a secluded canoe launch not ten minutes up the highway. Let the body float and bob, let that evidence wash away with nature.
It was possible that the body had been dumped in the vicinity and that the killer had long gone. It was possible.
It seemed a hell of a lot more likely that the woman in the room was in on it, maybe not the main show, but in the mix. Right there with that same raping and murdering sonofabitch they’d sought for almost a year and who they’d linked to past crimes as far back as 1995. Sonofabitch was a PG term for this guy. At the station they had an entire rainbow of colorful titles for him to hear if they ever caught him. They never thought there’d be a her involved or even considered the possibility that it was just a her.
“You can take a boot,” the detective muttered to himself and then chased into the room to gawk at the questionable woman struggling for life.
The nurse busied herself with a needle over the washroom’s sink. Eliza was asleep and her father cried, nodding with along to the rambling Biblical chanting performed by her harried mother.
The suspect repeated over and over that she was sorry for what she’d done. Her greasy blonde hair crawling over the bandage on her head, falling into her eyes as she struggled against the pain. Life was hard and death was no different.
“Forgive me, Jesus, please, take me! Jesus, forgive me, I’m sorry!” the woman begged, wailing.
The beeping became frantic. The nurse raced back and tripped on a loose shoelace, spilling her forward, the needle skittered under the heat register, she yelled a chorus of near-obscenities and crawled across the room seeking the needle.
The detective decided to question the woman trying for peace with Jesus, “Ursula Donaldson,” the detective pushed aside the short-range missionaries and leaned down to look into the woman’s panicked eyes, “did you kill Carrie Howe?”
There was recognition there, it was there all right, but before the detective could ask another question, the nurse stuck the needle into Ursula and she fluttered off to sleep.
The Goodman’s returned to their spot next to their daughter, feeling better as they’d saved a soul, although wishing it were Eliza’s soul they’d saved. And… what was it that the detective asked about anyway? Did that poor woman kill a girl named Carrie? Nonsense…, but if she had, she repented and, made good with the Lord. It’s the only real law of the land anyway. She might not get the star treatment, but the Lord would love her for the devotion and repentance, sure He would.
Ursula Donaldson made it three more hours, but never regained consciousness, dying at exactly seven that evening. It was sad, but there was still a chance for Eliza. She’d gone in for another surgery at six and the doctors said it went well. It felt like one of those things only God knows for sure.
First thing the next morning, Eliza had another surgery. Maria read aloud from the Bible, hoping something might stick and allow their daughter consciousness for a second, just a second, long enough to let God know she’d changed her way.
Eliza opened her eyes. She was warm and comfortable and yet, she didn’t feel herself. Her skin was tight, comfy and clear. It reminded her of high school but without all the acne. She sat in a field, her mind in a fog, the memory of how she got there was gone. She recalled being in Kate’s car. Malcolm was behind her and Kate and he had sunburn on his back so he couldn’t sit against the seat. They sang, all of them sang, loudly.
Some damn song. Catchy as hell… but then what?
Eliza got to her feet and looked around the peculiar landscape. The grass with luscious green and full, without weeds. She brushed at her short dress, curious about how she’d come to fit into a dress she had in the ninth grade. It was not as if she’d packed on much weight, but over the years her body shifted in shape, giving her a more womanly quality than that of a young boy. Nonetheless, she liked the dress and was happy that it fit again. A ways ahead she saw a road. It was warm and the grass felt nice on her bare feet.
“What was that song?” she asked herself, stopping as the sound of her voice registered fully. “Hello, hello. My name is Lizzy. Mo, mo, me, me,” she said, her voice was light and high, higher than it was when she and Kate and Malcolm sang along to that damn song.
She skipped toward the road, humming the tune of the song she couldn’t remember. It was pretty much the catchiest tune of all time and somehow it escaped her.
“Who cares about the name of a song? How did you get here? Where’s here?”
Just before the road there was a patch of butterflies resting atop a bed of wild flowers. She crept slowly, they fluttered into a breezy cloud and then dispersed, all but one. One beautiful creature with black circles over large blue and yellow wings landed on the tip of her nose. She smiled and wrinkled her face. A sneeze rocked her head forward and the butterfly followed its friends.
She bent to pick an orange wild flower and put it in her hair, it matched her puffy little dress perfectly. It seemed such a strange thing to do. Yet, it felt right just then. A gentle breeze put the scent of pine in the air from the forest on the other side of the road. Walking in the gravel didn’t appeal, but the grassy edge dipped down into the ditch for much of the trip.
“Screw it,” she said and took a timid step expecting a great discomfort and found a wonderful surprise. Each stone worked like magic fingertips, scratching spots she hadn’t realized itched, never tickling, just scratching and massaging. “I could walk here forever,” she whispered and continued down the road.
The sun began to lower behind her and she thought she pointed east.
Maybe over to… “Where in the hell am I?”
Eliza glanced up to the evening sky and as if her luck needed any luck, a truck rolled along the road. It was bright and shiny, but older, from the nineties. Eliza lifted her hand to block out the sun and watched the truck approach her. Part of her wanted to walk more, barefoot, loving the gravel, but another part didn’t like spending nights on the side of the road.
The truck slowed. It was a big Ford, it had a double-sized cab and a blonde haired woman with a wide smile sat behind the wheel. She reached over to turn down the radio and swung open the passenger’s side door, it was a Nelly Furtado song, I’m like a bird.
Eliza stepped closer. The driver pulled a denim jacket into the small strip of vinyl on the fabric bench, a center spot fit for only tiny bottoms. She waved Eliza in, seeming all right. Still, Eliza remained cautious. The corners of the driver’s mouth lowered into a thoughtful frown.
“Hey girl, did ya need a lift?” the driver asked.
“Maybe, where you going?”
“Don’t know. I’m lost. I’ve been driving since last night and can’t put my finger on where in the world I am, but it sure is pretty ‘round here.”
Eliza couldn’t disagree. The lack of knowledge this driver held didn’t sit well, maybe the next car might have a driver better acclimated.
“If you want, I’m heading west, I think. That way nonetheless,” the driver pointed through the window and squinted, one eye closed.
“You see anybody else around?”
The driver dropped her hand to the gear shifter. It had a blue and yellow butterfly inside its glass knob.
“You know what, I haven’t seen a soul, just you. So ya coming?”
“I don’t know, I don’t usually accept rides from strangers,” said Eliza, she sounded especially childish.
“Oh I don’t blame you there. While you’re waiting for your pops to come along and pick you up, someone bad might come. It makes you think, don’t it?” the driver nodded.
Eliza thought, it’s not as if it’s some rough old man.
“I took a couple bad rides in my life. I know how it can feel. Best get in. I’d feel better for you.”
“Hmm, all right,” Eliza said and scooted sideways. The seat was springy and pleasant on her back and butt.
She caught her reflection in the door mirror. It was her and at the same time, it wasn’t, not anymore. It was the Eliza that owned the orange dress, a young girl with tiny hips and pebble breasts. The face in the mirror was Eliza’s junior grades self… but without all the acne.
Eliza forced her eyes forward to the road, it got darker by the minute and she was starting to feel very fortunate to be in the truck.
The driver brushed her long blonde hair behind her ear. Eliza stared at the woman’s strange earrings. Real butterflies stopped dead and hung stiff for fashion.
“You like them?” the driver asked, noticing the interest. The butterflies dangled on slim gold chains.
“Sure seems like you like butterflies,” said Eliza.
“Don’t you like butterflies? I love them. Most girls love butterflies. Are you suggesting that you don’t just love them? I ain’t met a girl that don’t love them,” the driver turned toward Eliza with a heinous, toothy grin.
Eliza thought she was probably one poor soul in school. A rough trailer park girl that never caught a break, probably a poor luckless soul her entire life. Eliza also wondered why she looked, felt and thought about things along the lines of school.
Why do I look like this again?
An old All-4-One song came on the radio and Eliza recalled a school dance, one from right around the time of her dress and her boyish shape. The time she let Robbie Dion feel her up. The memory made her laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
“I just remembered something,” said Eliza. She looked out and the sky had gone from dusk to full night in the minutes of All-4-One’s I Swear.
“Look at that,” said the driver, pointing and squinting as she had earlier.
Hills rolled a little ways ahead and a bright neon sign promising fuel and motel beds stuck way up into the sky, a beacon for weary-eyed travelers looking to hide in the darkness offered by the backs of their eyelids.
“I think we should stop. I’m getting,” the driver yawned, it seemed forced, “tired. What do you say?”
“You think I should sleep in a room with you?”
Eliza’s safety warnings sounded the alarm in her mind. The woman was a stranger and a weird one at that. Eliza wondered what choices she had, she didn’t have a purse, didn’t have a credit card, she didn’t even have her cell. She wished she’d never gotten out of Kate’s Nissan.
Why did you? Damn it, what was that song?
The driver sniggered at Eliza’s question, “A room? Uh, no darlin’. It’s been fun and all, but we don’t need a room. What’s going to happen is, I’m going to reach over, you’re going to struggle some, I’ll hit you once or twice, you’ll calm down a bit, but really I’ll wish you wouldn’t. My hubby always liked the struggle too. Then he’d do his thing, but he’s not here, so we’ll skip the sticky bit.
“Ya see how this goes is, I’ll throw the seat flat and start my business. See girls like you, I know what you all think. You all think I’m dirt, well guess what! I am and dirt like me, well, we love to take it out on little girlies like you! Oh, you’ll fight some more and I’ll smack you around a bit more, I’ll be about ready to finish you, then I’ll force myself to wait. It’s better to wait, draw it out for the long haul.
“You might even give up for a while. Cry and moan for your mama and your pop. Once you’re still, you’ll feel a little something.”
The driver wheeled into the deserted truck stop as she spoke. Eliza looked around for a weapon and found none.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be gentle in the end. I know how to treat a lady. I’m awfully ladylike myself. Ha! You girls should’a been nicer to me in school, this would never had’a happen if you was just nicer.”
Eliza shook her head although she didn’t quite comprehend, recognizing only that things were about to become much worse for her and that the Mariana’s Trench song Malcolm tried to push on her for the last month was on the radio. The driver ran her hand behind the front bench and it folded back, a smooth bed front seat to back seat.
“That’s better, now, where was I?” the driver grabbed onto Eliza by the shoulders and made to toss her down onto the folded seat.
Eliza considered playing dead. The woman said she liked the fight, playing dead might make the woman lose interest. At the woman’s touch, that idea became so obviously ridiculous. Eliza made for the door handle. The driver’s fist thumped into her head twice and she grew sluggish. The driver pulled flat her prey. Eliza’s eyes rolling back in her head and she considered the exact nature of the situation around her.
How am I young again?
Where am I?
And why can’t I remember things?
Energy surged, if only at a minimal level, and Eliza grabbed at the door handle on the back door. It did nothing. She pulled the handle three times to be certain.
“Back doors only work once the front door is open,” the driver laughed, “You little ritzy bitches are all the same. Stupid.”
The track on the radio faded into a new song, “I threw a wish…,” said the voice and Eliza forgot all about the insane woman in front of her. It was that catchy Carly Rae Jepson song, the one that if you heard it one day it would be in your head for a week. It was the song on the radio, they all sang, Kate took off her seatbelt to dance while she drove. It was funny.
The hook between the first and second verse was as far as they all got. Elk, an entire pack, ran out into the road. Kate thumped into one and pulled hard on the wheel, two other vehicles did the same thing at the same time, coming together and stopping dead in a sea of metal and elk bits.
It was black after that. Now and then she blinked, saw paramedics, saw a nurse, the inside of a hospital room, a bandaged woman in another bed. She blinked again and saw her mother. Her mother didn’t notice the second she opened her eyes because her mother was nose deep into the Bible. That was it. There were no more blinks until she awoke in the strange place.
The driver had wild eyes and a fat knife ready for the main event.
“Don’t worry, I like to take my time with little girlies like you.”
Eliza thought, this is crazy and booted twice. The woman fell back and Eliza dove to the driver’s door handle, one that would certainly work. The door opened and she spilled out.
“You bitch!” Ursula Donaldson screamed as Eliza crawled on the gravel toward the neon sign next to the motel.
“Leave me alone!” Eliza shouted back in a shrill childish squeal.
Eliza felt two hands come down on her and lift her skinny frame into the air. She kicked as if pedalling and invisible bicycle.
“God wants me to have you! Sure as shit He does!”
“I don’t think so,” said a firm, mannish voice.
Eliza opened her eyes and stopped kicking. There was another person in that place, a hero, a perfect, wonderful hero.
“This is none of your business,” said Ursula.
The grasp let some and Eliza slid to the ground. The hands kept the small girl from moving, but both knew it was just a matter of time.
“Oh yes it is,” the man said to Ursula and then crouched with open arms.
Eliza recognized the man’s Catholic collar and despite her sourness toward the church, she jerked completely free of the driver and raced to the new embrace.
“There you are, my child,” the man held Eliza.
Eliza glanced back over her shoulder at the evil truck-driving woman. Ursula sneered. The father collected Eliza and squeezed. The driver’s door of an F-150 slammed and wheels dug into the gravel and peeled away.
“Are you hungry?” the father asked as he rose.
Feeling even smaller and as helpless as a young child, Eliza nodded emphatically and sobbed.
“Come, the Lord hates to see a child hungry,” the father said and pulled a key from his pocket.
They strode hand-in-hand across the parking lot to the door marked Office. Inside wasn’t like a motel room. It was drab and small. There was a single bed and a kitchenette. A worn wardrobe stood in a corner next to a ratty padded chair under a reading lamp. There was a child’s desk and three images of Jesus above the desk, hanging with loving warning. On the desk was a Bible.
“Sit, my child,” said the father, giving Eliza a small shove toward the bed.
She sat and gazed further around the dim room. A light switched. There was a row of cupboards and a small refrigerator. The father busied himself with a tray and what sounded like crackers. “How about some music?” the father asked and without waiting for an answer switched on the radio. Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe had started over. “This must be your song,” the father added, there was a smile on his voice, “My song is a Tom Petty song. I don’t recall it from before…, well, before, you know. It was on the radio.”
Before what? Eliza wondered and suddenly took on an uneasy feeling again, “Can we call my dad?” she asked and her voice was strange, more childish.
The father stepped back into the room carrying the tray of crackers, “In time, my son.”
Eliza wanted to shout. Everything was wrong. The father was strange. That woman before was terrifying. She wasn’t a boy and she wanted her dad! Instead, she sat in a respectable silence.
The father placed the tray over their laps as he sat. Eliza looked down at the silver tray. Around the crackers she saw the reflection of the father and a small boyish face with sad eyes, rosy nutcracker cheeks and a short brown bowl cut. Eliza shook her head gently, so did the boy in the reflection.
I’m not a boy! I’m a woman! she ached to wail, fear sapped her ability.
The father took a cracker and crunched.
He took another, crunched.
On the third, he crunched and spoke with a breath of spat crumbs, “The Lord works in mysterious ways. You want to make the Lord happy, don’t you, my son?”
“Of course you do, the Lord wants those that follow him happy. So you just do as I say.”
Eliza felt a hand on her boy-thigh and it struck her as Carly Rae Jepsen howled playfully.
I’m dead. There was an accident and I died. I died and, “I’m in Hell,” she gasped.
The father touched a sweaty palm on the cotton trouser thigh of a small boy, avoiding the boy’s eyes. Licked his dry, soda cracker lips. “How could this possibly be anything but Heaven?” the father asked as his hand rose up the thigh.
Former homeless hitchhiker and high school dropout, S.L. Dixon’s fiction has appeared in grew up in dozens of publications from around the world. He’s married, has a cat and currently resides in a small coastal community in British Columbia, Canada.
38 short stories published in the last 3 years (June 2014-June 2016) (Starburst Magazine, Dark Moon Digest, SQ Mag, Perpetual Motion Machine, The Wicked Library, etc) and a handful more are due for release in the coming months.