You wanted your brother to come with you to visit the old man, but the son-of-a-bitch said no. Work commitment. It was always a work commitment. He’ll come next week. Never mind the hospice nurse said there might not be a next week. He has an answer for everything; “You’re an accountant, and it’s not April.” He knows you’ll go. You always do the right thing.
Normally your wife would be with you, but that was before she forgot her wedding vows, packed her things and moved in with Dr. Phebes. You hate the name almost as much as you hate the man. What you really hate is that you’re driving down a highway in the middle of dumbfuck Arizona thinking of that prick.
Clouds are covering the moon, so the stretch of road between Tombstone and Bisbee is unusually dark. Your headlights reveal a white, wrought iron cross covered with red plastic flowers along the side of the road. It wasn’t there last year. This stretch of road is straight and, from what you can tell, safe. You figure some teenager got drunk and ran into a ditch or something. You put on the high beams, just in case.
Avis didn’t have any cars with GPS, but you’re figuring it’s about four miles to dad’s, maybe five. You open the window to get some air. The howl of a lone coyote pierces the night. You realize you never turned on the radio. You switch it on. Discover every station is either playing country music or featuring an evangelist seeking to save your soul. You switch it off.
The streetlights that frame the tunnel come into view. You know you’re close. But, something’s not right. As you get closer, you see a beat up van. It’s lying on its side in the oncoming lane, headlights blazing circles onto the rocks.
You slow down. Pull over.
You reach for your cellphone to call 911. No service. Screw Sprint. You toss the phone onto the passenger’s seat, unbuckle, and get out.
“Hotel California” is blasting from a broken window as you approach. You press your body against the roof and peer down expecting to see the mangled mess of a driver, blood, maybe guts.
You look into the dim tunnel, but see no one. You look down the road you just traveled.
Brisbee can’t be more than a mile away, on the other side of Mule Mountain. You’ll get cell service there.
You ease the Corolla past the van and enter the tunnel. Reach for the cell phone. It’s not there.
You slam on the brakes. Search the floor. It’s not there. You think back. Maybe you put it in your pocket and it fell out. You back up to the entrance to take a quick look. Pull onto the dirt shoulder.
You’re hunting for your phone near the van when you hear a door slam. You glance back toward the car. No one is there. What the hell? You think you’re hearing things.
You hurry back to the car.
As you open the door, you hear a low growl. Step to the far side of the car. There, in a ditch, lies a German Shepard, blood matting its fur. He lifts his head. Tries to show his teeth. He’s too weak. His breathing is shallow. His eyes glare at you. You tell him you’ll be back for help, but you really don’t believe he’ll be alive more than ten minutes.
You collapse into the car, fumbling with the keys as you start the ignition. Pushing the pedal to the floor. Speed toward Brisbee.
In the middle of the tunnel, you spot a lanky man dressed in ratty clothing. His face is covered with long grey hair. He puts his hands out, pleading with you to stop. You brake. He lumbers toward your window. You crack it open. Part of you wants to keep driving, to ignore this man and get the hell out of there, but you can’t just leave him.
He doesn’t show his face. “How much time?”
“How much time?”
You’re confused. You tell him it’s about 2:00.
Before you can ask if he’s had an accident, if he wants a ride, he takes a black sharpie out and adds a tally mark on his forearm. There’s a long row of them. He backs away. Leans down. Picks something up, and shuffles back toward the van.
You look straight. See the end of the tunnel. Take a deep breath. Try to find your composure.
You step on the gas pedal. The car lurches forward. Sputters. Slows to a crawl. Dies.
You eye the gas gauge. It’s more than half full. You don’t know much about cars, but you know this isn’t right.
You smell gas.
You look into the rear view mirror.
The grey-haired man is standing in the middle of the road. Hair pulled back behind his ears. He sees you seeing him. Drops a gas can. He’s holding something small in his other hand.
His lips turn upward in a smile. He flicks a lighter. Holds it ceremoniously in the air like a concert goer demanding an encore, before dropping it.
Sally Simon is a retired teacher living in the Catskills of New York State. Her work has appeared in Prime Number Magazine. She received a M.F.A. in writing from Manhattanville College twenty-five years ago, and is currently working on her first novel. When not writing, she’s either traveling the world or stabbing people with her epee. Read more at www.sallysimonwriter.com.