Monday, March 21, 2011

MILES: Chapter One, pt. 8

“Goddammit, John,” she cried out. “Put your seatbelt on!”

In front of her and to the left was a break in the meridian; the highway merged with a major arterial. Vehicles could wait at the posted stop sign and merge with traffic when an opening presented itself. A small part of her consciousness noticed the oncoming semi, noticed that it was careening towards the highway at an uncomfortable speed, and showed no signs of slowing down. Most of her attention was directed at her husband, and the rest was focused on the road, but a small part of her cried out in warning. John was still half out of his seat, removing crayons and action figures and shoveling them into the front passenger side; he paid her no attention. Then the semi was closer, and closer still, and her foot moved toward the brake, and then everything seemed to slow. She knew she was screaming, she could feel air moving past her lips, but she heard no sound. She felt the impact of the two vehicles, but the crash seemed to last minutes, hours, days. The van twisted, silent and almost graceful, and she found herself suddenly and for no obvious reason quite vividly picturing the broken faucet in the pub, the water dripping slowly, steadily. She could almost hear the water, tiny splashes in the sink. Drip. Drip. Drip. She could see every detail, the shine in the porcelain, the polished brass knobs. How strange, she thought, that the faucet would drip in such an otherwise immaculately kept establishment. Drip Drip. She felt herself suspended, gravity shifted and came at her from an unexpected angle, and suddenly John was no longer by her side. She was vaguely aware of glass – a lot of glass – shattering and exploding and cutting her face, getting in her mouth and nose, and then she fell sideways and her head made abrupt contact with something solid. There was a flash of white, a soft wet feeling on her skull, and the white light faded into nothing.

People forget that mechanical things fail all the time. Nothing designed by Man is designed to last forever: transformers spontaneously explode and entire cities lose power; hoses leak and valves burst, causing unexpected floods. Warranties are not a guarantee that something will last, more a promise that when something does fail – and everything manufactured will undoubtedly fail eventually – the manufacturer will provide the consumer with a suitable replacement.

Proper maintenance is one way to improve the longevity of a manufactured item; the examination and replacement of parts can extend the lifespan of the machine as a whole, but even the act of maintaining a product is fallible, because Man is ultimately fallible. A mechanic may look for obvious signs of wear, but less than obvious signs of degradation may also be a factor: hairline fractures in a piece of porcelain, belts without enough tension, or corrosion on a bit of plastic.

So when the air brakes on the long bed semi-ton inexplicably failed, both the Charlie Madson and Bill Houston were completely surprised, but perhaps they shouldn’t have been. Any number of a thousand different things could have gone wrong, but as the truck careened through the stop sign, neither of them could think of a one; as their grill collided with the rear section of the Econovan, twisting and flipping the van into the railing on the side of the highway, and as their trailer jackknifed and rolled, both of their minds were conveniently and completely blank.

There was the screech of grinding metal, the squeal of rubber dragged against concrete, and the resounding crash and subsequent rattle of the trailer turning on its side, and then the highway fell unnaturally still, and deadly silent.

Bill shook the cobwebs from his head, badly shaken and disoriented, and squinted into the low sun, the painful orange orb hanging directly in front of his cracked windshield. Next to him he heard a moan; Charlie stirred. Bill reached out and touched the driver’s shoulder, then shook it for good measure.

“F’koff,” Charlie said, and pushed Bill’s hand away.

Bill unsnapped his seatbelt, and nearly fell out of the passenger-side door. As he stretched out, nursing a pain in his back, he felt the wet squish between his legs and smelled the pungent odor wafting through the air.

“Aw, shit, boss,” he said, not expecting a response. “I think I pissed myself.”

His neck badly hurt – he tenderly examined himself for bruises and stumbled toward the wreckage that was once the Econovan. The van was on its side, and the rear half was completely destroyed, like some great hand had crushed it in on itself like an aluminum pop can.

There was a woman in the Driver’s Seat, a beautiful brunette, and Bill blinked, not sure if what he was seeing was real. She was bleeding from a wound somewhere beneath her heaps of dark hair, and there was a gash across the bridge of her nose. She didn’t appear to be conscious. For that matter, he had no way of knowing if she was still breathing.

“Lady,” he said instinctively. He cautiously approached the wreckage. “Hey lady, you okay?”

In front of the van he saw the man who must have been her husband, or at least, what was left of him. The man had been thrown completely from the vehicle, propelled through the windshield it would seem, and had slid roughly thirty feet before wrapping himself around a concrete pylon off the shoulder of the Interstate. His skull had collapsed, and his spine was twisted at an unnatural angle. There was an awful lot of blood. Bill felt queasy; he wasn’t a squeamish person by nature, but that man had literally been folded in two, like some horrible origami. The man’s eyes were open and he stared out into nothing, a look of surprise frozen on his pale face. Bill inched closer to the van, dropping to his knees for a better vantage point.

“Lady?” he called again.

It was then that he saw the children. Bill was turned away, dizzy, and was suddenly and violently sick.