John had had enough. The girl he had moved half-way across the country for had broken up with him, the job he found had laid him off, and he found that the friends he thought he had made weren’t friends you go to when times were tough. So, he packed everything he could into his car and headed home to the people he knew and loved to decide what to do next.
John decided, however, that he would take the backroads to get back home. The thought of hours and hours of expressway driving left him uninspired. Although it would take longer to reach his destination, he wasn’t in any hurry, and he found that he enjoyed seeing America more from the two-lane roads than the six-lane highways.
He mapped out his course and, for the most part, there was always something to see. There would be one stretch, though, where towns would be few and far between. He almost decided to hop onto the expressways for that section, but the thought of seeing the night sky away from any city lights kept him on the backroads.
John was halfway through this section, on a dark, moonless night, when his car broke down. The “check engine” light had stopped blinking and stayed on. The engine stopped and wouldn’t start again. With a feeling of dread, he saw that his cell phone showed “no service.”
He got out of the car and looked around. It was a cloudy night, so the stars weren’t even visible. It was real country dark.
He had passed a small town, a “wide spot in the road” as his grandfather might have called it, about 10 miles back. John knew that 10 miles goes by in no time driving in a car, but walking in the dark had a way of telescoping time. Ten miles is forever in the dark. There wasn’t much of a choice, though, so he started back.
He had been walking for an hour, and questioning his decision, when he saw a pair of headlights in the distance. Relief washed over him and for the first time in a long while, he was hopeful. He started waving his arms as the car approached. The headlights cut through the darkness until they were all he could see.
He then saw the car’s red taillights receding into the distance. John couldn’t believe that the car didn’t stop. Who would leave a stranded man in the middle of nowhere? Wouldn’t even slow down, or offer to go for help?
“Hell of a thing, isn’t it?”
The voice came out of nowhere, out of the darkness itself. John screamed.
“Sorry,” the voice said again. “Didn’t mean to scare you.” An old man walked out the field next to the road. Dressed in a pair of overalls, John figured him for a local farmer.
“Where did you come from?” John asked. “Why are you out here in the dark in the middle of the night?”
“I reckon I’ve always been here,” he said. “At least as long as I can remember.”
“What do you mean?”
“Son,” the old man said, “what do you think just happened?”
“I think you came out of nowhere and almost gave me a heart attack.”
“Son, you can’t have a heart attack.”
“Why not?” John said. “Scare someone hard enough and anyone can have a heart attack.”
“Not you,” the old man said. “Not anymore. You have to have a heart beat to have a heart attack. Go on, feel for one.”
John was trying to figure out what the old man’s game was, but he felt for his own pulse, figuring it would be out of control. He felt, and was puzzled when he couldn’t find it. He tried his other wrist. Nothing.
He placed his hand over his heart. There was nothing. Even as the fear grew within him, even when it should be beating faster and faster, there was nothing.
“Son, you have to have a heartbeat to have a heart attack, and you have to be alive to have a heartbeat. You ain’t got neither any more.”
“What are you saying?” John said.
“That car didn’t miss you,” the old man said, walking in the direction John had come from. “C’mon, look over here.”
John did, and was horrified to look down at where the old man pointed. His own mangled corpse stared blankly back at him. It was the face he saw every day in the mirror, only this time pale and broken.
“Same thing happened to me,” the old man said. “Walking, minding my own business when someone ran over me like it was nothing. Been here ever since.”
In his shock, John couldn’t form any questions or thoughts.
“I had heard stories about this stretch of land, but I never paid any mind to them,” the old man said. “At least not until I found myself in my current state. When I was a boy, the old men would tell me stories about how this stretch of road was cursed, and that if you died on it, you’d stay here until you killed the one what killed you. That was the only way to be free to move along.”
He looked at John, not unkindly. “Son, it’s too late for me,” he said, “but the one who killed you still isn’t that far, and you’ve got to kill him close to where he done you in. He’s not too far yet, but he’s gonna be.”
“What can I do?” John asked.
“Think about him, and if you think hard enough, and he’s still close enough, you’ll be right there with him. You’ll know what to do then.”
Numbly, John closed his eyes and thought about the car, and the driver who ended him. He felt what he thought was a gust of wind, but when he opened his eyes, he was in the back seat of a car.
He looked in the rear view mirror at the driver. He was a teen with pimples and a panicked look on his face.
Of course he’s panicked, John thought. He’s driving away from a fatal hit and run. He’s about to be a whole lot more panicked.
John reached through the drivers seat, shouting “Murderer!” at the top of his voice. His hands passed through the seat, and the driver, without doing any harm, but the surprise, the terror hit the teen full force. He lost control of the car, sending it off the road, flipping over and over, end over end. It finally came to rest, echos of the crash reverberating until there was silence again, broken only by the ticking of the cooling engine.
John looked at the scene and was sickened at what he had done. But it had to be done, he told himself. I don’t want to haunt this road for the rest of forever.
“Well, you got ‘im,” the old man said. This time, his appearance didn’t scare John; it was the most natural thing in the world.
“What happens now?” John asked. “When do I move on?”
“Oh, you don’t,” the old man said. “I’m sorry, son, but I lied to you. The only way to move on is if your killer meets man’s justice, at least that’s what the old folks said. You’ve robbed them of dispensing justice, now that the boy’s dead. You’re here forever, now.”
“What?” John felt whatever brief hope die inside him. “Why would you do that? Why?”
“Well, it gets damn lonely,” the old man said.
The spirit of the driver walked up to them, coming out of the wreckage. “Hello?” he said, obviously confused.
“Now,” the old man said, “well, hell, now I have company.”